Dems want to raise property taxes to fund government pensions

Pension moneyI guess I should use the old vaudeville line: Stop me if you’ve heard this one: the push to increase commercial property taxes is about government pension costs. Returning to this subject at this time (I wrote on the same subject for the Sacramento Bee last April) is prompted by the coming together of a couple of recent events.

There was the League of Women Voters and other groups hosting a meeting in Los Angeles this past weekend to “educate” people and advocate for a split roll property tax seeking to raise billions of tax dollars on the back of businesses. Also last week, Stanford University’s Institute for Policy Research issued a report by professor and former Democratic legislator Joe Nation describing the pension burden that is beginning to strangle state and local governments in California.

The services that are affected by both the split roll rally and the Stanford report are quite similar.

Supporters of the split roll say that raising taxes on commercial property will provide $9 billion a year needed for schools and services provided by local governments. Meanwhile, Joe Nation’s report says that because of pension contributions by employers (i.e. governments) increasing an average of 400% over the past 15 years, educational services, recreation, community services and others are squeezed for lack of money.

Many “core mission services,” as defined by the Stanford report, will be starved of money because of pension demands. The split roll advocates talk about the need for more money for local services. What they don’t tell you is that money for those services is being diverted to cover the pension requirements of state and local governments because these governments made generous promises to workers and accepted revenue projections to cover those promises that did not play out.

Instead of admitting that more money is needed to cover pension costs, split roll advocates create a false argument about business dodging its fair share of property taxes. They claim homeowners now pay a much larger share of the property tax burden than they did prior to Proposition 13. A Legislative Analyst’s Office report undercuts that false claim.

The report states in part, “Homeowners pay a slightly larger share of property taxes today than they did when Proposition 13 passed. Proposition 13 does not appear to have caused this increase. … In part, this may be due to faster growth in the number of residential properties than the number of commercial and industrial properties.”

The so-called grassroots activity seeking support for a split roll is backed by powerful public employee unions who support more revenues to cover the pension costs. Yet, you won’t hear anything from the split roll advocates about the pensions strangling local budgets or pushing some cities toward bankruptcies.

Meanwhile, the Stanford study makes it clear with numerous examples that pensions are absorbing greater and greater portions of local government budgets. The Stanford study states clearly there is “agreement on one fact: public pension costs are making it harder to provide services that have traditionally been considered part of government’s core mission.”

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Study confirms the California pension crisis is hitting now

Debates about California’s pension crisis almost always focus on the big numbers – the hundreds of billions of dollars (and, by some estimates, more than $1 trillion) in unfunded liabilities that plague the public-pension funds. For instance, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System is only 68 percent funded – meaning it only has about two-thirds of the money needed to pay for the pension promises made to current and future retirees.

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

CalPERS and its union backers insist that there’s nothing to worry about, that future bull markets will provide enough returns to cover this taxpayer-backed debt. Pension reformers warn that cities will go bankrupt as pension payments consume larger chunks of municipal budgets. They also warn that pensioners are at risk if the shortfalls become too great. The fears are serious, but they mainly involve predictions about what will happen a decade or more into the future.

What about the here and now? California municipalities and school districts are facing larger bills from CalPERS and from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to pay for sharply rising retirement costs. Most of them can come up with the money right now, but that money is coming directly out of their operating budgets. That means that California taxpayers are paying more to fund the pension system, and getting fewer services in return.

The “bankruptcy” word garners attention. This column recently reported on Oroville, where the city’s finance director warned about possible bankruptcy during a recent hearing in Sacramento. The Salinas mayor also has been waving the bankruptcy flag. The b-word understandably gets news headlines, especially after the cities of Stockton, Vallejo and San Bernardino emerged from bankruptcies caused in large part by their pension situation.

But there’s a huge, current problem even for the bulk of California cities that are unlikely to face actual insolvency. They are instead facing something called “service insolvency.” It means they have enough money to pay their bills, but are not able to provide an adequate level of public service. Even the most financially fit cities are dealing with service cutbacks, layoffs and reductions in salaries to make up for the growing costs for retirees.

A new study from Stanford University’s prestigious Institute for Economic Policy Research has detailed the depth of this ongoing problem. For instance, the institute found that over the past 15 years, employer pension contributions have increased an incredible 400 percent. Over the same time, operating expenditures have grown by only 46 percent – and pensions now consume more than 11 percent of those budgets. That’s a tripling of pension costs since 2002. Contributions are expected to continue their dramatic increases.

“As pension funding amounts have increased, governments have reduced social, welfare and educational services, as well as ‘softer’ services, including libraries, recreation and community services,” according to the study, “Pension Math: Public Pension Spending and Service Crowd Out in California, 2003-2030” by former Democratic Assemblyman Joe Nation. In addition, “governments have reduced total salaries paid, which likely includes personnel reductions.”

These are not future projections but real-world consequences. The problem is particularly pronounced because “many state and local expenditures are mandated, protected by statute, or reflect essential services,” thus “leaving few options other than reductions in services that have traditionally been considered part of government’s core mission.” Many jurisdictions have raised taxes – although they never are referred to as “pension taxes” – to help make ends meet, but localities have a limited ability to grab revenue from residents.

The report’s case studies are particularly shocking. The Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown often talk about the need to help the state’s poorest citizens.Yet, the Stanford report makes the following point regarding Alameda County (home of Oakland): Pension costs now consume 13.4 percent of the county’s operating budget, up from 5.1 percent 15 years ago. These increases have “shifted up to $214 million in 2017-18 funds from other county expenditures to pensions,” which “has come mostly at the expense of public assistance, which declined from a 33.6 percent share of expenditures in 2002-03 to a 27 percent share in 2017-18.”

The problems are even more stark in Los Angeles County. As the study noted, pension costs have shifted approximately $1 billion from public-assistance programs including “in-home support services, cash assistance for immigrants, foster care, children and family services, workforce development and military and veterans’ affairs.”

It’s the same, basic story in all of the counties and cities analyzed by the report. For instance, “the pension share of Sacramento’s operating expenditures has increased over time, from 3.2 percent in 2002-03 to 12.5 percent in the current year.” That percentage has gone from 3 percent to 12 percent in Stockton, and from 3.1 percent to 15.2 percent in Vallejo.

These are current problems, not future projections. But the future isn’t looking any brighter. “The case studies demonstrate a marked increase in both employer pension contributions and unfunded pension liabilities over the past 15 years, and they reveal that in almost all cases that costs will continue to increase at least through 2030, even under the assumptions used by the plans’ governing bodies – assumptions that critics regard as optimistic,” Nation explained.

So, yes, the public-sector unions and pension reformers will continue to argue about when – or even if – the pension crisis will cause a wave of California bankruptcies. But overly generous pension promises are destroying public services and harming the poor right now.

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

This piece was originally published by the California Policy Center.

CA Should Raise Teacher Pay By Reducing Unfunded Retirement Liabilities

Ashs-teacher-and-studentsFast-rising spending on pensions and other retirement costs is crushing teacher staffing and pay in California. As an example, retirement spending at San Francisco Unified School District grew 3x faster than district revenues over the last five years, absorbing $35 million that could have gone to current teachers. Worse, that happened despite record stock market gains and school revenues. Absent reform, teacher staffing and pay will decline further.

Something must be done. Public school students and teachers deserve fully-staffed classrooms and sufficient salaries. While the children of well-to-do parents can attend private schools or privately-subsidized public schools, most of California’s six million K-12 students cannot.

Someone must step up. Potential candidates fall into five categories: (i) the people who created the problem, (ii) taxpayers, (iii) students, (iv) current teachers, and (v) pension beneficiaries.

  • Self-serving pension fund board members and elected officials blocked honest pre-funding of retirement promises, causing today’s unfunded liabilities. While it would be wonderful justice if they could be forced to pay for the problem they created, at nearly $100 billion and growing the problem is too big for their resources.
  • Taxpayers didn’t cause the problem but they’ve been paying for it. Income taxes were raised 30 percent in 2012 and school revenues are up 60 percent since then but pension spending in districts like SFUSD grew more than 100 percent over that same period and are heading higher.
  • Students and current teachers didn’t cause the problem but they’ve been paying for it in the forms of understaffed classrooms and inadequate salaries, especially in school districts without well-to-do parents to subsidize school budgetsIt’s no wonder poor and minority students in California perform worse than their counterparts in Texas, which spends less per student but has a better student-teacher ratio.
  • Pension beneficiaries didn’t cause the problem but unlike students, teachers and taxpayers they have NOT been paying for it. In fact, they garnered additional financial benefits from the actions that created the problem, as explained here. They need to step up.

Reducing unfunded obligations would free up billions for current teachers.

Shrinking unfunded retirement obligations by reducing un-earned future benefits would allow school districts to divert fewer dollars to retirement costs. For example, Rhode Island suspended annual increases until pension funds are better funded and moved some to-be-earned benefits to hybrid plans. Acting similarly in California could free up billions with which to boost current teacher staffing and pay. Such sacrifices by beneficiaries would be no greater than those of students, teachers and taxpayers and beneficiary retirement benefits would still be greater than those of the vast majority of their fellow citizens.

No one can be happy about making any innocent person sacrifice to meet unfunded liabilities created by corrupt pension fund board members and elected officials. But students need fully staffed classrooms and teachers need adequate salaries. Everyone needs to chip in to reach those goals.

One cannot both be progressive and be opposed to pension reform.

Unfunded retirement obligations are crushing the hopes and dreams of California’s public school students and teachers. Policymakers need to act.

NB: A different set of unfunded liabilities is crushing higher education. The University of California is losing $600 million this year compared to what it would’ve received had it simply maintained the same share of the state budget as it garnered a decade ago. Retirement beneficiaries didn’t cause that problem either but only they have avoided the consequences as taxpayers are paying more and citizens are receiving less. The state needs to reduce its unfunded liabilities. Beneficiaries must chip in there too.

ecturer and research scholar at Stanford University and President of Govern for California.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

CalPERS touts investment gains while ignoring long-term problems

Calpers headquarters is seen in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

Last week’s announcement by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System that it had strong 11.2 percent returns on its investment portfolio in 2016-2017 after terrible returns the two preceding years prompted ebullience from the pension giant’s supporters.

Sacramento Democratic insider Steve Maviglio and the Californians for Retirement Security – a union-backed group that opposes any effort to change public employee pensions – shared a Twitter post about how the news “should quiet pension bashers.”

But credit ratings agencies, actuaries and investment experts aren’t likely to see the news as reason to change their grim view of CalPERS’ medium- and long-term prospects. Even with the strong year, CalPERS still only has 68 percent of funds in hand to cover its pension obligations – a roughly $100 billion shortfall – and that’s based on a forecast of 7 percent annual returns that CalPERS’ own consultant said should be reduced to 6.2 percent.

Meanwhile, local governments around the state are in no mood for happy talk about the nation’s largest public pension agency. Their required CalPERS’ pension payments are soaring and appear likely to keep increasing for years to come – even if CalPERS achieves its 7 percent return goal. Aging public agency work forces are swelling the ranks of retirees and “smoothing” practices that phased in CalPERS rate increases over the last 15 years no longer offer much of a cushion to governments’ bottom lines.

Modesto official: CalPERS status quo will collapse

In May, Joe Lopez, Modesto’s acting city manager, said the city eventually wouldn’t be able to afford its CalPERS bill, which will nearly double over the next eight years.

“Ultimately there is going to have to be a substantial change made to the way the pension system is run,” Lopez told a City Council budget committee hearing, according to the Modesto Bee. “We can’t continue to rely, CalPERS can’t continue to rely, on revenue [from cities and its other public sector members to meet its pension obligations]. There is going to have to be substantial changes to the actual benefit packages if these are ever going to be sustainable.”

There are similar worries in many small cities around the state.

Last month, Chico Councilman Randall Stone – a financial planner – predicted CalPERS would eventually collapse as the benefits it paid out exceeded the money it was taking in.

The grim assessment was triggered by a report showing the city’s CalPERS bill will go up about $370,000 in 2018-19, $803,000 in 2019-20 and nearly $2 million in 2020-21 alone.

“I think generally speaking, the community doesn’t understand what a time bomb this is,” Stone told the Chico Enterprise-Record. “You should be screaming with your hair on fire from the rooftops.”

In May, the Bay Area News Group reported that three small East Bay towns – Pittsburg, Walnut Creek and Martinez – had to cut several agencies’ budgets for 2017-18 to pay their CalPERS bills. And these cuts are even before the large pending CalPERS hikes.

In March, the Ventura County Star reported on how local cities were reeling because of the CalPERS hikes. Tiny Port Hueneme’s pension bill went from $774,000 in 2014-15 to $1.3 million in 2017-18 and will reach $3.2 million in 2022-23 – more than quadrupling over an eight-year span.

SEIU leader: Pension shortfall like drought

But union officials have not expressed sympathy with struggling local governments. In a June 26 op-ed for the Sacramento Bee, Yvonne Walker, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, mocked “doomsday predictions about California’s public worker pension funds.” She likened the recent poor CalPERS returns to the state’s drought, which came to an abrupt end this winter.

This analogy – and Walker’s long-term optimism – prompted a tart response from David Crane, a financial expert and former aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“No financial expert can present any real evidence showing that CalPERS can grow its way back from its current 63 percent funded ratio to anywhere close to 100 percent,” Crane wrote on the Medium website.

The 63 percent funded figure went up to 68 percent after CalPERS’ good returns were noted, but Crane stands by his dismissal of any optimism about CalPERS recovering from its current woes.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Association of Pension Funds Blacklists Reform Organizations

pensionIn an press release from the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems dated December 19, 2016, the California Policy Center, and its spinoff online publication, UnionWatch, were both chosen, for the 2nd year in a row, as one of only 28 “policy and research organizations” that NCPERS has deemed to be “Think Tanks that Undercut Pensions.” Ponder the significance of this excerpt from that same press release: “Under the Code of Conduct, NCPERS urges its corporate members to disclose whether they contribute to these organizations.”

What exactly were the transgressions of the California Policy Center, and UnionWatch, that earned them a place on this list of undesirables? That earned them an admonition from NCPERS to its corporate members to boycott us, or else? Here is their list of criteria – and, briefly, our response:

How to be a think tank that gets blacklisted by NCPERS:

(1) Advocate or advance the claim that public defined-benefit plans are unsustainable.

Guilty. Public pension funds cannot possibly withstand the next market downturn. Unaltered, they will either bankrupt public institutions or cause taxes to be raised to punitive levels.

(2) Advocate for a defined-contribution plan to replace a public defined-benefit plan.

Not guilty. Our organization does recognize, however, that defined-contribution plans may be the only recourse, if significant changes are not made to restore financial sustainability to defined-benefit plans.

(3) Advocate for a poorly designed cash-balance plan to replace a defined-benefit plan.

Not guilty. We have not invested our resources in serious review of this policy option.

(4) Advocate for a poorly designed combination plan to replace the public defined-benefit plan.

Guilty, except that, of course, we believe a well designed combination plan could work. An example of this, fruitlessly advocated by California Governor Brown, is the “three legged stool” solution: A modest, sustainable pension, participation in Social Security, and a 401K savings plan with a modest employer contribution.

(5) Link school performance evaluations to whether a defined-benefit plan is available to teachers and school employees.

Not guilty. While it is probably true that providing teachers with the golden handcuffs of back-loaded pension benefit formulas guarantee the poor performers will stay on the job while those with talent will be more likely to pursue other employment options, we have not done any investigative work in this area. We applaud those who have.

More to the point, we applaud any corporate interest with the courage to stand up to American’s government union controlled pension systems by supporting pension reform organizations. They have a lot to lose.

Anyone who needs evidence to back up our assertion that government pension systems are joined with powerful financial special interests should consider the relationships between NCPERS – the “National Conference On Public Employee Retirement Systems” – and their “corporate membership.” NCPERS describes itself as “the principal trade association working to promote and protect pensions by focusing on Advocacy, Research and Education for the benefit of public sector pension stakeholders.”

NCPERS helpfully discloses those 36 corporations who have purchased the “enhanced level of corporate membership,” and it includes some of the most powerful financial firms on earth. To name a few: Acadian Asset Management, BNY Mellon, Evanston Capital Management, J.P. Morgan, Milliman, NASDAQ, Nikko Asset Management Americas, Northern Trust, Prudential Insurance Company, State Street Corporation and Ziegler Capital Management.

One would think corporate members with this much clout would mean the tail wags the dog, but NCPERS is a very big dog. As the political voice for nearly all major state and local public employee pension systems across the entire U.S., their lobbying muscle is backed up by nearly $4 trillion in invested assets. At one of their recent conferences, Chevron was a “platinum sponsor.”

Will Chevron ever oppose the lobbying agenda of NCPERS? Probably not. According to Yahoo Finance, BNY Mellon owns 1.34 percent of Chevron’s stock, Northern Trust owns 1.35 percent, and State Street Corporation owns 4.7 percent. That’s just the holdings of the NCPERS “enhanced members.” Moreover, pension systems don’t just invest through intermediaries such as BNY Mellon, they invest directly in these corporations. There is no financial special interest purchasing publicly traded U.S. stocks that is bigger than the pension fund members of NCPERS, and there is no client to the financial firms on Wall Street bigger than the pension fund members of NCPERS. Nothing comes even close.

No report on NCPERS would be complete without documenting just how thoroughly it is dominated by public sector and union operatives. Their president “served 3 terms on the Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2 executive board, resulting in two decades of union leadership.” Their first vice president, a retired police officer, “served as the first woman president of her union, FOP Queen City Lodge No. 69, from 2005 through 2015.” Their second vice president “is currently the statewide president of AFSCME Council 67, representing well over 30,000 members in 21 separate political jurisdictions.” Their secretary “has more than 30 years of service as a Tulsa public employee.” Their treasurer “served as a firefighter for 41 years. During his career, he held offices on the board of the IAFF Local 58.” Their immediate past president “is the treasurer of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), Local 2, American Federation of Teachers (AFT).”

That’s everyone. The entire management team of NCPERS. A government union controlled financial juggernaut, marching in lockstep with the most powerful players on Wall Street. The consequences are grim for the rest of us.

Public employee pension funds are aggressively attempting to invest nearly $4 trillion in assets to get a return of 7.0 percent per year. Collectively, they are underfunded – according to their own estimates which use this high rate of return – by at least $1 trillion. And by nearly all conventional economic indicators, today we are confronting a bubble in bonds, a bubble in housing, and a bubble in stocks. The alliance of financial special interests who don’t want this party to end, and government union leaders who don’t want to lose retirement benefits that are literally triple (or more) what private sector taxpayers can expect, is complicit in policies that have allowed these asset bubbles to inflate. When the bubbles pop, they will share the blame.

In the meantime, they blacklist those of us who call attention to their folly.

Ed Ring is the vice president for policy research at the California Policy Center.

L.A.’s Unfunded Pension Liability Explodes to $15 Billion. Leadership Nowhere To Be Found

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

LA WATCHDOG — Our enlightened elite who occupy Los Angeles City Hall tell us that pension reform is not necessary. After all, the recent actuarial report for the Fire and Police Pension Plan indicated that its $19 billion retirement plan was 94% funded as of June 30, 2016.

But as we all know, figures never lie, but liars figure, especially when it involves the finances of the city of Los Angeles.

The city will say that a pension plan that has assets equal to 80% of its future pension obligations is in good shape.  Baloney! Pension plans should aim to be 100% funded, especially in down markets. And in today’s bull market, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average is hitting record highs, the pension plan should be 120% funded so that it can withstand another bear market.

Even at the 94% funded ratio, the unfunded pension liability for the retirement plan is pushing $1.2 billion, not exactly chump change when compared to the projected payroll of $1.4 billion for the 12,800 active cops and firefighters.

But there is more bad news that is buried in the opaque actuarial reports that, when pieced together and analyzed, reveals that the overall Fire and Police Pension Plan is over $6 billion in the red and that only 75% of its future obligations are funded.

The Fire and Police Pension Plans are also responsible for Other Post-employment Benefits (“OPEB”) which covers medical benefits for retirees. But the $3 billion of OPEB obligations are less than 50% funded, resulting in an additional $1.6 billion in unfunded liabilities.

The city is also cooking the books by “smoothing” the actual gains and losses in its investment portfolio over a seven year period. This little trick is covering up a $600 million hit to its investment portfolio.

Finally, if the newly calculated liability (that includes adjustments for OPEB and smoothing) of $3.4 billion (85% funded) is adjusted to reflect the more realistic investment rate assumption of 6.5% (as recommended by Warren Buffett), the unfunded pension liability soars to $6.25 billion and the funded ratio plummets to 75%.

When combined with the $9 billion liability of the Los Angeles Employees’ Retirement System, the city’s total unfunded pension liability exceeds $15 billion. And this liability is expected to double over the next ten years based on realistic rates of return that are in the range of 6% to 6.5%.

But what are Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council President Herb Wesson, Budget and Finance Chair Paul Krekorian, and Personnel Chair Paul Koretz doing to address the single most important financial issue facing the city?

Nothing! Absolutely nothing other than put their heads in a potato sack and hope that a robust stock market will make the $15 billion problem go away.

They have ignored the recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission to form a Committee on Retirement Security to review and analyze the city’s two pension plans and develop proposals to “achieve equilibrium on retirement costs by 2020.”

Krekorian and Koretz made the bone headed suggestion to raise the investment rate assumption to 8% so that the city would be able to lower its annual required pension contributions to the underfunded pension plans, allowing more money for union raises.

Wesson has not even created a Council File for the pension and budget recommendations of the LA 2020 Commission.

But the real culprit is Garcetti who has refused to address the pension mess that will eventually become a crisis. He has not asked his political appointees on the two pension boards to initiate a study of the pension plans and the city’s ever increasing contributions that now devour 20% of the city’s General Fund budget.  He has refused to contest the State’s Supreme Court “California Rule” which does not allow the city to reform the pension plans by lowering future, yet to be earned benefits.

Rather than look out for the best interests of the city and all Angelenos, he continues to kiss the rings of the campaign funding union leaders who are vital to his political ambitions.

The city’s lack of openness and transparency and its unwillingness to address its ever growing, unsustainable $15 billion pension liability can only be categorized as a major league cover up that should be front and center in the upcoming March election.

Where’s Eric?

Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate.  Jack is affiliated with Recycler Classifieds — www.recycler.com.  He can be reached at:  lajack@gmail.com.

This piece was originally published by CityWatchLA

Practical Reforms to “Right-Size” Government Unions

Rolling back the power of government unions in a state like California is almost impossible. Their power has been unchallenged for so long that they now virtually control the state Legislature, and their grip on local politicians extends to nearly every city, county, school district and special district.

Unions2But there have been reforms in some places, and they can serve as examples for municipalities throughout the state. Several Orange County cities have tried transparency ordinances of variable effectiveness. San Jose has restricted the use of binding arbitration. Voters in San Jose and San Diego have both passed pension reform measures. Cities scattered throughout California have grappled with unions over project labor agreements and prevailing wage laws. And in the courts, reformers have won the first round in the Vergara case, which challenges union work rules governing teacher dismissals, layoff preferences and tenure requirements.

Against the remorseless advance of the government union agenda, these and other measures are decidedly incremental. They are often overwhelmed by deceptive union measures that carry the reform label but are actually reactionary shams, designed to turn back the clock. Or they are challenged in court by an avalanche of suits and counter-suits designed to eviscerate reforms that voters overwhelmingly supported.

The game is rigged, but the nonpartisan hunger for quality public education and civic financial health is universal. Sooner or later, the will of the people will always prevail. Here then is a partial list of public sector union reforms that have been tried, or should be tried, in every city and county in California:

(1)  “Right-to-Work” for all government workers:

This would forbid government unions from getting a government employee fired simply because they didn’t want to join a union. Right-to-work is especially compelling in government organizations, where altruistic individuals who want to become public servants may not wish to financially support the political agenda of their union. Because government unions negotiate over work rules that determine how we manage our public institutions, virtually all union activity is inherently political. Right-to-work in government organizations therefore not only forces unions to be more accountable to their members, but is based on an employee’s constitutional right to free speech.

(2)  “Worker’s Choice” for all government workers:

This law takes right-to-work a step further, and should be implemented in tandem with right-to-work. One objection that unions make to right-to-work laws is that it allows those workers who did not join the union to become “free riders” who enjoy the alleged benefits of union representation but don’t pay any dues. “Worker’s Choice” allows workers under a collective bargaining agreement to opt-out and represent themselves individually in their wage and benefit negotiations with their employer. Something that professionals throughout the private sector do as a matter of course.

(3)  Union Recertification:

This would require government unions to regularly hold a “recertification” election, preferably once every year. The election would require secret ballots and participation by a quorum (usually a majority) of employees in the collective bargaining unit. Most government employees in California started working long after the unions took over. They should be able to decide if they want a union to continue to represent them. Recertification, like right-to-work and worker’s choice, is a practice that would ensure greater accountability by unions, because if they lose the annual election, they would be decertified and could not represent those workers until regaining their approval in an election to be held at least a year later.

(4)  Reduced Scope of Collective Bargaining:

This reform is recommended in order to provide elected officials the latitude to equitably balance the interests of taxpayers and government workers. It gives them the latitude to cope effectively with budget deficits caused by economic downturns that have already affected private sector workers. Limiting negotiations on compensation to current benefits, for example, would mean that elected officials retain the authority to modify pension benefit formulas. Not only budget issues but work rule issues could be restricted under this reform. For example, “last-in-first-out” layoff rules which favor seniority over merit could be scrapped.

(5)  Pension Reform:

The most likely way to implement effective pension reform – which, ironically, is the only way to rescue the defined benefit plan for government workers – is to revise the California constitution via a state ballot initiative. Such a reform, at the least, would give elected officials or voters the right to reduce pension benefit accruals earned by active employees for future work. It would require active employees to pay 50% of their normal contribution, calculated at a rate of return permissable under ERISA statutes, i.e., a truly “risk-free” rate of return. It would impose stricter curbs on spiking and double dipping that would be harder to circumvent in court. And it would provide tools to be implemented to ensure system solvency in a financial state of emergency, such as suspension of COLAs for retirees (retroactively if necessary), retroactive reduction in pension benefit annual accruals for active workers, raising of the pension-eligible retirement age, and a ceiling on benefits.

(6)  “Paycheck Protection”:

This would require unions to obtain permission, preferably annually, before deducting the political portion of their dues from worker paychecks. California’s government workers currently assert their right to not pay the political portion of their dues – notwithstanding the argument that ALL dues paid to a government union are used for essentially political purposes – via a cumbersome “opt-out” process. This reform would change that to an annual “opt-in” process, making it much easier for government workers to avoid having to support the political agenda of their unions.

(7)  “Dues Checkoff”:

Under this reform, government payroll departments would no longer be required (or allowed) to withhold union dues from government employee paychecks and turn that money automatically over to the union. Instead unions would be required to bill and collect dues without relying on payroll withholding, just like other membership organizations. This is particularly justified in the case of government unions, under the assumption that the government should not be acting as a collection agent for a private organization.

(8)  Clarification of “Public Employee”:

This is an interesting reform that can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, by broadening the description to include government contractors, then in conjunction with other reforms, appropriate regulations restricting inappropriate union activity can be extended, for example, not only to home health care workers, but to construction contractors whose unions negotiate for project labor agreements and prevailing wage agreements. On the other hand, narrowing the description of what constitutes a public employee can counter the aggressive expansion of government unions in states such as California where there are virtually no checks on government union power. Either way, the principle governing the application of this reform would be that unions that operate in the public sector should be subject to more restrictions than those unions that operate in the private sector.

(9)  Transparency in Negotiations:

Lost on most voters is the fact that government unions epitomize the so-called abuses of the elite establishment. Powerful corporate and financial interests make deals with government unions in an Alliance of The Big. More regulations drive out innovative commercial competition at the same time as they expand unionized government. Transparency in negotiations, obviously, means that unions have to disclose their wage and benefit demands for public review. But it means much more than that. Disclosure of their financial and operating reports, their membership dues, their internal leadership election processes. And more than anything, a spotlight on how government unions collude with the most powerful and corrupt among the private sector elites they claim they are protecting us from.

(10)  Ban on Political Activity:

Public employee unions, if they should exist at all, should not be permitted to use their resources to conduct any sort of political lobbying or campaigning. There is an inherent conflict between the agenda of unionized government and the public interest. Government unions, by definition, want to increase their membership and want to increase the pay and benefits of their membership. That causes more government to trump good government. It causes more spending to trump efficient spending. At its root, it means that failure of government programs constitutes success for government unions, because their solution is inevitably to call for more government spending. Political activity by government union should be illegal.

Perhaps the most important point to be made in the context of these ten recommendations is that they are utterly nonpartisan. Unions in the public sector bear little relation to unions in the private sector, for reasons that are well documented: They don’t operate in agencies that have to make a profit, which limits how much private sector unions can ask for from their employers. They elect their own bosses through massive campaign spending, something unheard of in the private sector unions whose management is determined by shareholders. And they run the government, which allows them to make common cause with the most powerful and corrupt among the private sector elites. What part of this is partisan?

Californians of all political persuasions are going to eventually have to face the reality that government unions are the reason our schools are failing students and parents, and the reason we can’t balance our budgets and control our debt. These reforms are all ways to begin to reduce the power of government unions, which will be a giant step towards making California’s state and local governments truly accountable to the interests of all workers – not just government workers.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

CA Pension Reform — A Rigged Game

public employee union pension“Certainly the game is rigged,” science fiction author Robert Heinlein once wrote. “Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.” The quip should be the new rallying cry of California’s indefatigable band of pension reformers, who continue to fight to rein in the state’s pension debt. It’s always been a tough battle — but the latest setback shows that the system is rigged at practically every level. Last month, California’s Public Employment Relations Board, the quasi-judicial body that oversees the implementation of the state’s collective-bargaining statutes, invalidated the results of a three-year-old referendum —Proposition B — that passed in November 2012 with 66 percent of the vote and would have reduced pension benefits for most new hires in San Diego and moved them to a 401(k)-style, defined-contribution system. Other reforms have also fallen by the wayside. In June 2012, heavily Democratic San Jose approved with nearly 70 percent of the vote a measure that would have trimmed benefits for current employees. A Santa Clara County judge in 2014 eviscerated the measure, invoking the so-called “California Rule,” a 70-year-old court interpretation of the state constitution that has made it impossible for overburdened cities to trim employee costs.

San Diego’s reform initiative was qualitatively different from San Jose’s. Its authors were careful to craft language that avoided running afoul of the California Rule by focusing on new hires and placing caps on pensionable pay. Prop. B was touted as a model for the rest of the state to follow, and the state needs one. The union-controlled Legislature remains hostile to reform, beyond the expedient passage in 2012 of a pension-reform bill that mainly served as a bait-and-switch to convince voters to hike taxes.

PERB is not an impartial agency. Before the 2012 city vote, PERB had tried to keep the proposition off the ballot altogether. Most of the board’s members have worked for one of two big unions — either the California Teachers Association or the Service Employees International Union. Its administrative law judges aren’t real judges but officials employed by the agency. Nearly two years ago, one of those biased adjudicators issued a lengthy ruling demanding that San Diego return to the 2012 status quo. The full board affirmed the ruling, maintaining that officials were required to bargain the terms of the initiative with the city’s unions before placing the measure on the ballot. But the city didn’t place the measure before voters — voters did it themselves, signing petitions to place it on the ballot. The board elided this vital distinction by pointing to the participation of San Diego’s former mayor, Jerry Sanders, and other officials in the initiative’s campaign. Never mind that Sanders said he was involved as a private citizen.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to appeal the measure, even though a leading Democrat said he voted for the appeal simply to get legal clarity. “The people’s right to initiative is guaranteed by the California Constitution,” City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told the Union-Tribune. “This right cannot be bargained away in a back room, or stolen from the people by a government agency.” The appeal will send the matter to the courts.

Goldsmith, a strong backer of Prop. B, wrote in a July 2012 San Diego Union-Tribune column that the issue boiled down to constitutional rights. “[N]ever before has any initiative that qualified for the ballot through petition signatures been deemed a ‘sham’ citizen initiative,” he wrote. “Since 1911, the right to place citizen initiatives on the ballot through voter petitions has been a constitutional right in California reserved by the people to bypass politicians and special interests. This right is not conditioned upon the approval of those special interests and is not something to be bargained over.”

PERB isn’t the only agency to try to kill citizen initiatives. Recently, the union-friendly Agricultural Labor Relations Board invalidated an election by Fresno farm laborers who voted against representation by the United Farm Workers. For more than a year, the board refused even to count the ballots before deciding to destroy them. Former San Diego councilman Carl DeMaio, a leader in the city’s pension reform fight, and Chuck Reed, San Jose’s former mayor and a leader in that city’s pension reform efforts, have been working on a statewide initiative for either the November 2016 or 2018 ballots. They’ve faced lots of resistance from entrenched power, and they’re preparing to meet other legal obstacles from unions and their political backers. Yes, the game is rigged, but reformers soldier on. At least they understand that California’s fiscal future is at stake.

Pension reform initiative abandoned for 2016

Unions pension public sectorThe landmark effort to take public pension reform straight to the people of California has been withdrawn from ballot consideration.

“Beleaguered by fundraising doubts and attacks from organized labor, two former California officials said Monday they are backing off plans to place a measure on the November ballot intended to curb public pension benefits,” the Sacramento Bee reported. “Instead, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio said in a joint announcement, ‘We have decided to re-file at least one of our pension reform measures later this year for the November 2018 ballot.’”

Staying solvent

The news marked a sharp reversal for critics of the state’s pension spending, which has ballooned apace with California’s freshly flush balance sheet. The price tag for guaranteed health coverage alone has put Sacramento on notice of the size and scale of the problem. “The state has promised an estimated $72 billion in health care benefits for its current and future retirees, an amount that will increase to more than $300 billion over the next three decades, according to the governor’s Department of Finance,” according to the Associated Press.

Gov. Jerry Brown has sought to bring those costs under control in a way that won’t spur a revolt within his own party or hand too much power to Republican legislators. “Brown proposes prefunding benefits similar to the way the state pays for pensions — by paying into a trust fund that accrues investment returns over time, reducing the amount of money that taxpayers must contribute in the future,” the AP noted. “In negotiations with public employee unions, he’s asking state workers to pay into a fund through a deduction on their paychecks. The state would pay an equal amount.”

A firmer approach

The Reed/DeMaio proposals would have tackled unions in a much different way.  “Reed and DeMaio had filed two proposals for the November 2016 ballot, planning to choose one,” as the AP reported separately. “One would have put employees who first join a public pension system on or after January 2019, into 401(k)-style retirement savings plans that guarantee fixed contributions from employers instead of fixed returns. The second measure would have capped how much employers could pay for new hires’ retirement benefits to a certain percentage of their salary.”

Public opinion studies produced conflicting portraits of how much support for the initiatives Reed and DeMaio could count on. “Apparently the measure to force new employees into 401(k) style ballot initiatives did not poll well (even though a 2015 poll by Reason-Rupe showed majority support for such a shift),” as Reason observed. “The measure to cap the amount employers could contribute to pensions fared better in polls, but according to Reed, they weren’t able to raise enough money to collect signatures and prep for an expensive battle with California’s public unions.”

Finding funding

That difficulty struck at the heart of the year’s complex political landscape. “The stark reality is that within the state, there are no deep pockets to finance such a campaign,” Dan Walters noted at the Bee. “However large they may be, fast-growing pension and health care liabilities don’t discomfit any major interest groups, since their greatest impacts are on local governments, especially cities, rather than on state government.” That would have likely pushed the initiative’s supporters into a scramble for cash.

The necessity to look far and wide for money fostered its own kind of political optics problem. “Any reform campaign would be dependent on money from one or more wealthy individuals, probably from out of state, and it hasn’t materialized,” as Walters observed. “Conversely, any broad retiree benefit reform effort would draw implacable, high-dollar opposition from unions.” So even if the reform effort gained an adequate sponsor, Golden State unions would be able to portray their high-dollar spending as more of an in-state groundswell than their opposition — a potentially substantial advantage in a populist election season.

Originally posted on CalWatchdog.com

San Jose City Council Capitulates to Police Union Power

“He told the class to take advantage of the academy, and then find jobs elsewhere. The police union tries to get us to leave the department.”

–  Anonymous source to NBC Bay Area, television report “Another San Jose Police Recruit Says Union Tried to Get Cadets to ‘Find Jobs Elsewhere’,” Oct. 28, 2014 (excerpt begins at 1:38 in report).

San Jose Police DepartmentA precedent setting new development in San Jose last week provides abundant evidence of just how powerful local government unions really are in California. As reported Monday in San Jose Inside and elsewhere, an embattled City Council has tentatively approved a new contract with San Jose’s police union that awards them “a 5 percent ‘retention’ bonus and an 8 percent raise over the next 16 months. In addition, former officers who return to the force in the next year can claim a 5 percent signing bonus.”

More significantly, at the same time, the San Jose City Council has tentatively agreed to drop their appeal of a court ruling that overturned a key part of a San Jose pension reform, a re-examination of the so-called “California Rule.” As pension expert Ed Mendel reported in PublicCEO, “The ‘California rule’ is a series of state court decisions widely believed to mean that the pension offered on the date of hire becomes a vested right, protected by contract law, that can only be cut if offset by a new benefit of comparable value.”

In practical terms, this means that pension benefit formulas, according to the California Rule, cannot even be trimmed for future work performed by existing employees. San Jose’s pension reform Measure B, passed by 70 percent of voters in 2012, presented city employees with a choice – they could either contribute an additional 16 percent towards their pension benefits via payroll withholding, or they could accept lower pension benefit accruals from then on. Nothing they had earned to-date would have been taken away from them.

Despite legal opinions that claim the California Rule is not well established law, and despite that the California Rule is contrary to the law governing public sector pensions in most states, and contrary to all law governing private sector pensions everywhere, San Jose’s local elected officials have capitulated.

THE INHERENT HYPOCRISY OF THE ‘CALIFORNIA RULE’

It is difficult to overstate just how hypocritical the union’s position is on the issue of modifying pension benefit formulas. Because the problems with pensions began back in 1999, when Senate Bill 400 raised pension benefit accruals per year for the California Highway Patrol. Within a few years, most every agency in California followed suit. And these pension benefit enhancements were applied retroactively to the date of the employees’ hire.

That is, starting in 1999, agencies changed the pension benefit formula so that, for example, police and fire pension accruals were not just increasing from 2 percent to 3 percent per year from then on, but retroactively to the day each employee was hired. So someone who would have earned a pension equivalent to 2 percent of their final salary times the years they worked would now earn a pension equivalent to 3 percent of their salary times the years they worked, even if they were going to retire within the next year or two.

What San Jose Measure B tried to do was not roll back pension benefits from 3 percent per year to 2 percent per year for years already worked. It only tried to reduce the benefit accrual, prospectively, for years still to be worked. And even that was too much for these unions.

THE DEVASTATING COSTS OF SAN JOSE’S POLICE/FIRE RETIREMENT BENEFITS

If taxpayers could afford to pay these pension benefits, there might be a stronger argument to preserve them. But San Jose’s independent Police and Fire Department Retirement Plan, according to their most recent financial report, is not in great shape financially. Keeping it afloat requires staggering sums of money from taxpayers that are only going to increase each year. Here are highlights:

(1) The plan as of June 30, 2014 (most recent data available) was 77.5 percent funded (page 114). This means that instead of earning their officially projected annual return on investment of 7.125 percent per year, just to avoid becoming more underfunded, they will have to earn 9.2 percent per year. Just to stay even. That is their so-called “risk free” rate of return.

(2) The fund truly is “risk free” to participants, because the taxpayers pay most of the expense and cover the losses when the market fails. In FYE 6-30-2014, police and fire employees contributed $21.1 million into their retirement fund, and taxpayers (the city of San Jose) contributed $123.6 million (page 69), nearly six times as much. How many “six to one” matching contributions are out there for corporate 401(k) plans?

(3) The unfunded liability for the San Jose Police and Fire Retirement Plan was $806 million (page 114) as of June 30, 2013 (most recent actuarial data), equal to 436 percent of payroll. Or looking at this another way, the city’s pension contribution was $123.6 million, whereas their “covered payroll” was $184.6 million. That is, for every dollar San Jose pays to put police and firefighters on the street, they have to pay 67 cents to the pension fund.

(4) It’s not just pensions. The San Jose Police and Fire Retirement Plan includes city funded retirement health insurance benefits. How’s that fund doing? As of June 30, 2013 (most recent data), that plan was 11 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of $625.5 million (page 65).

(5) If you consolidate the financial data for San Jose’s Police and Fire Retirement Plan’s pension and healthcare (OPEB) plans, the most recent statements indicate they are 67 percent funded, with a total unfunded liability of $1.4 billion. If San Jose were to responsibly reduce their total unfunded liability for public safety retirement benefits, they would be paying far more than 67 cents for every dollar of payroll.

THE MISLEADING EMPHASIS ON AN EXODUS OF OFFICERS

Throughout this battle between fiscal realists and the police union in San Jose, the police have maintained that officers were leaving the city to work elsewhere or to retire. There’s no question that their ranks have thinned, perhaps alarmingly. According to SJ Inside, “the agency [currently has] 943 sworn officers out of a budgeted 1,109 positions.” And historically San Jose’s police department has had as many as 1,400 officers. But is the union thwarting efforts to fill the ranks?

Several news reports suggest that could be the case – starting with the local NBC television affiliate’s report quoted earlier. That anonymous source corroborated what another person stated publicly. According to the San Jose Mercury guest column entitled “San Jose police recruit: Union told class to quit right away for good of the department,” former police academy cadet Elyse Rivas writes:

“On the first day of the academy, our orientation included the opportunity to meet Jim Unland, the Police Officers Association’s president. In no uncertain terms, he blamed Measure B for the departure of hundreds of officers — and he told us that it would be better for the department and for us if we would just quit, right then and there. He said that our employment with the department did not help the POA’s cause in proving Measure B was killing the department’s recruitment capabilities. He urged us to find jobs elsewhere.”

Reached for comment earlier today regarding developments in San Jose, former Mayor Chuck Reed agreed with the substance of these allegations. Not only did he confirm reports of union representatives discouraging academy recruits from taking jobs with the department, but he also described other ways they thwarted recruitment:

“There were reports of recruiting events held in the San Jose police union offices where they invited police recruiters in from other cities to encourage active San Jose police officers to take these jobs in other cities.”

Reed also said, “When we were trying to hire officers, we wanted to bring in retired police officers in to do the background checks so we could keep our active officers on the beat – but the union urged retirees to refuse to accept the work.”

In any case, Reed pointed out that the city had determined to reduce the size of the police force back in 2010, well before voters approved Measure B, saying “the police department headcount went down from 1,400 to 1,100 before there was any pension reform.” Reed believes that an ideal headcount for the San Jose police department would not require returning to 1,400, and that getting to the budgeted 1,109 positions would be a good first step.

SO HOW MUCH DO SAN JOSE’S ‘UNDERPAID’ POLICE OFFICERS MAKE?

Getting timely and accurate information on public pay is difficult because financial reports from public entities take a long time to produce and often omit important data. The most recent payroll records publicly available for the city of San Jose are for 2013. According to a search on Transparent California of San Jose city employees with “Police” in their job title, in 2013 there were 260 of them who made over $250,000 in pay and benefits, and an astonishing 806 who made over $200,000 in pay and benefits. Here’s the link:  San Jose city employees, 2013, with “Police” in their job title.

Pension information for San Jose’s retired police officers is complicated by the fact that the data includes firefighters along with police officers. Moreover, the average full-career pension estimates are understated because a significant percentage of the current participants retired before pension benefits were enhanced in San Jose – a process of “continual enhancement” that continued up until 2008. Using 2014 data acquired by Transparent California, the estimated average full career pension for a San Jose police/fire retiree is $99,116 – with guaranteed 3 percent per year cost-of-living increases. The number for recent, post-2008, full-career retirees is undoubtedly much higher. Here is a 2014 roster of all of San Jose’s police/fire retirees – note that individual retirement health benefits (unfunded liability of $625 million) were not provided – certainly adding a value of at least another $10,000 per year.

Are San Jose’s police officers underpaid? The average veteran officer makes pay and benefits worth well over $200,000 per year. Add to that the likely 5 percent “retention bonus, and the 8 percent raise over the next 16 months per the tentative new agreement. You decide.

The personal attacks and confrontational tactics employed by the San Jose police officers union against their political opponents do not reflect well on the fine men and women who staff that department, who perform work of vital importance to society. Whether or not they intentionally urged officers to quit (or never join) the San Jose police force is almost irrelevant, despite abundant evidence that suggests they did. Because their real transgression against the people of San Jose, the taxpayers, the elected officials, and public safety itself, is to insist on levels of pay and benefits for their officers that are far more than the city can afford.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.