How Local Governments Can Reform Pensions IF the “California Rule” is Overturned

pension-2In December of 2018, the California Supreme Court will hear arguments in what is generally referred to as the Cal Fire pension case. The ruling could potentially overturn what is commonly referred to as the “California Rule.” The current interpretation of the rule is that pension benefits, once increased, cannot be reduced for existing employees even for future years of service without the agency providing a benefit of equal value to the employee.

What reforms would become possible if the Supreme Court rules that changes for future years of service are not protected by the California Rule?

To demonstrate how this ruling could be a game changer and open the door to pension reform for nearly every city and county in California, this article uses the potential savings for various reform options for the County of Sonoma.

It should be noted that any changes to the pension system if there is a favorable ruling by the court would need to be made by the governing body of each agency and if they refuse to act, could also be made by the taxpayers through the voter initiative process.

Current Situation in Sonoma County

The pension system for Sonoma County employees was founded in 1945 and up until 1993 was a sustainable and affordable system that paid career employees 2% per year of service. This would mean, for example, that after a 35 year career a retiree would collect a pension equal to 70% of their final base salary. Sonoma County employees are also eligible to receive Social Security benefits. Over the first 48 years until 1993, the pension system had accrued $355 million in total pension liabilities (money owed to retirees and earned to date by current employees).

But then, due to a series of illegal pension increases back to the date people were hired in 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2006, pensions for employees with only 30 years of employment jumped (including “spiking”) to 96% of their gross pay. After the first increase, the liability had doubled from the 1993 $355 million amount to $793 million in 1999. The liability doubled again in 9 years and hit $1.9 billion in 2009. Last year, in 2017 the pension liability reached $3.34 billion, a staggering 941% growth over 24 years.

The Growth of Sonoma County’s Pension Liability
$=Billions

To pay off the soaring liability, Sonoma County issued pension obligation bonds in 1994, 2003 and 2010 totaling $597 million dollars of principal. Paying off the bonds with interest will cost taxpayers $1.2 billion on top of their normal pension contributions. Currently, the County owes $650 million in principal and interest on the bonds that will cost them an average of $43 million per year until 2030.

In addition, the County’s contribution to the pension system (including debt service on the pension obligation bonds) has grown from $8 million in 1998 to $117 million in 2017. In other words, we have a serious math problem on our hands. While tax revenues have been growing at 3% per year, pension and healthcare costs have grown by 19%. Something has to give. In Sonoma County we have two choices, do nothing and pay higher taxes for fewer services, or, if possible (depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court case), reform our pension system to make it more equitable for taxpayers and more secure for employees and retirees.

So far, money has been taken from our roads and infrastructure maintenance budgets and the County has borrowed $597 million to pay for pensions. Soon, more and more money is going to come from cuts to fire and police protection, and services for those to in need. The retroactive pension increases not properly funded have essentially created a debt generation engine that sticks our children and grandchildren with enormous debt for services received in the past.

The Pension Increases May Have Been Illegal

In 2012 responding to a complaint I filed, the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury could not find any evidence that the County followed the law when pensions were increased. The California Government Code in Section 7507 requires that the public be notified of the future annual cost of the increase. However, records show that all of the retroactive pension increases were enacted without determining the future annual costs and the public was never notified. This is a serious issue since public notification is the only protection taxpayers have. In addition, documents uncovered by New Sonoma indicate that the agreement was for the General employees to pay 100% of the past and future cost of the increase and Safety employees to pay 50% of the cost. This requirement was never enforced by the Sonoma County Retirement Association as it should have, so the vast majority of the costs for the benefit increases have been illegally borne by the County’s taxpayers.

These same increases were enacted at the state and local level from 1999 to 2008 for almost every public agency throughout the state. Cursory investigations of other cities conducted by the California Policy Center and Civil Grand Jury’s in Marin and Sutter county found similar violations at every agency investigated. A lawsuit is currently under appeal that would void illegal increases back to the date they were enacted which would in Sonoma County’s case save taxpayers $1.2 billion over the years ahead. But even if this case fails, other reform options may be available soon as a result of a favorable supreme court ruling. Here they are:

1. Cap the Employer Contribution

A lot of problems could be fixed at the governance level if employees felt the impact of growing unfunded liabilities. As long as the current situation of the employer/taxpayer covering 100% of the unfunded liability and debt service on the bonds exists, the problem will continue to grow and reforms will be minimal because all actuarial losses fall on the taxpayer.

Capping the employer contribution at 15% of salary (still 5 times what private sector employers contribute to retirement funds for their employees) would cut pension costs in Sonoma County from $117 million to $55.4 million, a savings to the county of $61.6 million per year. And as pension costs increase over the years ahead, the employees will pay all the costs associated with the growth.

2. Split All Pension Costs 50/50 Between the County and Employees

Currently the employer contribution is 19% of payroll. The current pension bond debt service, all paid for by the employer, is 11.3% of payroll. The current employee contribution is 11.6% of payroll. Therefore Sonoma County’s total pension costs in 2017 were 42% of payroll.

Capping employer contributions at 50% of pension costs or 21% of payroll would save the county $50 million per year, a cost that would be borne by employees in additional pension contributions.

3. Provide an Opt Out for Employees to a 401k Plan

Instead of forcing employees to contribute 21% of their take-home pay to their pension, a 401k option could be created.

Existing employees could be provided with the option of moving the present value of their future pension benefit into a 401k account and opting out of the defined benefit pension system. Going forward, the County could provide them with a 10% of base salary 401k contribution which the employee could match for a 20% contribution. Then, if the employee wanted to turn their account balance into a defined benefit for life, they could purchase an annuity upon retirement using their 401k funds.

Studies show young people entering the workforce prefer the portability of a 401k plan because they don’t see themselves in the same career their entire lives. Defined benefit pension funds also punish folks who leave the system early and highly reward those that stay because they are back loaded by design.

A lot of folks might also choose this option because they may be worried about the soundness of their pension plan, which in Sonoma County’s case, they should be.

4. Improve Pension Board Governance

Require a majority of non pension fund members on the Sonoma County Employee Retirement Association (SCERA) board or move the servicing of the fund, if possible to a private entity because of the conflicts of interest that exist when board members are also part of the pension system.

5. Establish Greater Transparency

Establish a COIN Ordinance to require the County Supervisors to hire an outside negotiator during contract negotiations and to provide the public with the cost impact of any changes to the citizens ahead of approval.

6. Mandate Public/Private Pay Equity

Require the County to perform a prevailing wage study and offer new County hires salaries that are similar to what Sonoma County residents earn in the private sector for work requiring comparable education and skills.

7. Return Spending Authority to Voters 

Require voter approval of any pension obligation bonds, and require voter approval of any increases to pension formulas or increases to salaries in excess of inflation.

6. Eliminate Conflicts of Interest

Do not allow elected officials to be members of the pension system due to the obvious conflict of interest.

7. Improve Public Oversight

Create a permanent Citizens Advisory Committee on Pensions that would provide an annual study of the pension system and track the success of pension reform efforts and provide recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. All reports prepared by the committee will be posted on the Committee’s webpage on the County’s website. The committee would have the power to perform accounting and regulatory compliance audits of the Sonoma County Retirement Association, investigate any evidence of illegal acts, and recommend appropriate remedies to the Board of Supervisors. A description of any violations and any committee recommendations will be posted on the Committee’s webpage on the County’s website.

This article was originally published by the California Policy Center

*   *   *

Ken Churchill has over 40 years of business and financial management experience as founder, CEO and CFO of a solar energy company and environmental consulting firm. In 2012 after discovering the county illegally increased pensions without the required public notification of the cost he founded New Sonoma, and organization of financial experts and citizens to investigate the increase and inform the public. Information on New Sonoma and their findings and court case can be found at www.newsonoma.org.

Gov. Brown Will Defend Public Pension Reform Dec. 5

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 27:  California Governor Jerry Brown announces his public employee pension reform plan October 27, 2011 at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California.  Gov. Brown proposed 12 major reforms for state and local pension systems that he claims would end abuses and reduce taypayer costs by billions of dollars.  (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

As he requested, Gov. Brown will get a chance before leaving office to defend a public employee union challenge to his pension reform that some think could result in a ruling allowing pension cuts.

The state Supreme Court yesterday announced oral arguments scheduled Dec. 5 in Los Angeles on a firefighter appeal to allow employees to continue boosting their pensions by purchasing up to five years of “airtime,” credit for years in which they did no work.

If the court finds airtime is a vested right, the court could modify the “California rule” that prevents cuts in the pensions of current workers, limiting most cost-cutting reforms to new unvested hires, which can take decades to yield significant savings.

The airtime case, Cal Fire Local 2881 vs. CalPERS, one of five similar challenges to the pension reform, was fully briefed last January. Brown’s legal office replaced the state attorney general in the defense of the airtime ban.

“As the end of Governor Brown’s term in office draws closer, we respectfully urge the Court to calendar this matter for argument as soon as possible,” the governor’s legal affairs office said in a letter to the Supreme Court last July 6.

The Supreme Court said in September that Cal Fire oral arguments might be held as soon as November. The arguments on Dec. 5 are during the last regularly scheduled week of oral arguments before Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom is sworn in Jan. 7.

“This move was animated in large part by Governor Brown’s deep concern for the fiscal integrity and solvency of public pension systems throughout the state,” said the governor’s legal office letter in July, referring to taking over defense of the reform.

“It was the same concern that motivated him to help develop the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013, and sign it into law,” said the letter.

Brown has left a seat vacant on the seven-member Supreme Court for a record 14 months. Former Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Werdegar gave notice in March last year that she would retire in August.

If no appointment is made before Dec. 5, a key vote on pension reform could come from one of the rotating appeals court justices brought up to hear more than 100 cases so far.

The six current members of the Supreme Court are evenly split between three appointees made by Brown, a Democrat, and three appointees made by former Republican governors.

“It’s not something I want to do too quickly,” Brown said in January, one of his few publicly reported remarks about the vacancy. “It’s very important now. I have appointed three. The fourth could be very decisive. So I want to understand how that decisivness should work.”

Among the speculation is that Brown may appoint an aide he wants to retain as long as possible, wanted a four-year delay in a retention election for the new election by waiting past the September deadline for the ballot this month, or may appoint his wife Anne Gust Brown.

The California rule has been cited as courts overturned several cost-cutting pension reforms approved by voters. For example, a Pacific Grove limit on payments to CalPERS in 2010 and a San Francisco ban on supplemental pension payments in 2011.

In 2012, a superior court overturned a key part of a San Jose measure approved by 69 percent of voters that would have cut the cost of pensions that current workers earn for future work, while protecting pension amounts already earned.

The plan pushed by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, would have given current workers the option of paying more to continue earning the same pension, up to 16 percent of pay, or choosing a less costly pension that would pay less in retirement.

A superior court overturned the option citing the California rule, a series of state court decisions believed to mean the pension promised at hire becomes a “vested right,” protected by contract law, that can only be cut if offset by a comparable new benefit, erasing cost savings.

Reed, now on the board of the bipartisan Retirement Security Initiative pension reform group, said pensions have been losing ground. CalPERS had a debt or funded liability of $90 billion in 2012, when the Brown reform legislation was approved, and $138 billion in 2016.

He said five different lawyers have filed five friend-of-the court briefs outlining five different approaches to modifying the California rule. One of the questions in the Cal Fire case is whether the Supreme Court will rule on vested rights and the California rule.

The Supreme Court summary says the Cal Fire case presents two issues: 1) Was the option to purchase airtime a vested pension benefit (2) and if so, did the legislation ending airtime purchases violate the contracts clause of the state and federal constitutions?

If the court finds that airtime is not a vested benefit, the court might also decide there is no need to rule on whether the airtime ban violates the contracts clauses and the California rule.

“This is the California State Supreme Court and this is a real big issue, and I would be very surprised if they didn’t take the opportunity to be more expansive than narrow,” Reed, a lawyer, said yesterday. “But I’m only guessing.”

Gregg Adam, a Messing Adam & Jasmine attorney for Cal Fire, said “our client is excited that oral argument is scheduled,” and the case has been extensively briefed by the parties and friends of the court.

“A narrow ruling is certainly possible,” Adam said in an email. “The Governor argues additional retirement service credit is not the type of pension benefit that the California Rule protects. If the Court agrees with him, the opinion will be short.

“We hope the Court reaches the larger issue. The benefit was integral to employees’ retirement security. It also encouraged diversity and education in state service. So we think it falls squarely within the category of benefits protected by the California Rule.

“The California Supreme Court has led on this issue and, especially at this time, we’re going to encourage it to continue to do so.

“With respect to Alameda, the Court will determine when it is ready to resolve the issues in that case, which may or may not be affected by any ruling in Cal Fire.”

Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Assn. v. Alameda County Employees’ Retirement Assn. was consolidated with similar Contra Costa and Merced county cases challenging a part of the reform that prevents “spiking” by boosting the final pay on which pensions are based.

The Supreme Court designated the Alameda case as the lead for three other similar cases challenging parts of the governor’s reform. The governor’s office had no comment yesterday on the pension cases.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

More Than 100 Local Governments Pursue Tax Hikes to Meet Soaring Pension Bills

TaxesNine months after a League of California Cities report warned that pension costs were increasingly unsustainable, more than 100 local governments in the Golden State are asking voters for tax hikes on Nov. 6 – which Bond Buyer says is nearly double the record of 56 set in November 2016.

The Nov. 6 measures are on top of 36 city and county taxes that went before voters in the June 2018 primary.

Historically, local hikes in sales and hotel taxes are approved at least 60 percent of the time in California. They’re generally linked to a specific local need – not growing labor costs. With CalPERS’ bills to local governments on track to double from 2015 to 2025, such claims would seem dubious this election year.

Nevertheless – aware that voters likely would be cool to the idea of raising taxes to pay for pensions far more generous than those in the private sector – even now, many local elected leaders depict the hikes as necessary to pay for public safety or for fixing potholes and longer library hours.

Local officials assert hikes are about adding services

In the lead-up to the June primary, virtually the entire city leadership ranks in Chula Vista campaigned for a half-cent sales tax hike on the grounds that it was crucial to adding dozens of badly needed police officers and firefighters.

The tactic worked as Chula Vistans backed the increase. But city leaders’ claims of a coming public-safety hiring spree were impossible to square with the numbers from the city’s budget office. In April, it warned of “bleak” times ahead for San Diego County’s second-largest city, including an annual structural deficit that could reach $26.6 million by 2023 – with surging pension bills mostly to blame.

In Santa Ana, where voters are being asked to raise sales taxes by 1.5 percentage points on Nov. 6, the campaign for the tax hike rarely mentions pension costs.

But once again, a city bureaucrat framed the tax hike in more candid fashion.

“We’re not immune to the labor cost increases that are occurring throughout the state of California and throughout the country. We need to be able to provide additional services to the community. The question before the voters is what level of services do they want from their government?” Jorge Garcia, a top aide in the Santa Ana city manager’s office, told Bond Buyer.

Santa Ana’s pension bill is expected to go from $45.1 million in 2017-2018 to $81.2 million by 2022-2023 – an 80 percent increase.

‘The cause of this point-blank is CalPERS’

But some politicians have no patience with misleading narratives. “The cause of this point-blank is CalPERS and our pension fund,” Lodi Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said in June when the Lodi City Council decided to put a half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot.

As the League of California Cities reported in January, “With local pension costs outstripping revenue growth, many cites face difficult choices that will be compounded in the next recession. Under current law, cities have two choices – attempt to increase revenue or reduce services.”

The severity of the pension crisis is illustrated by the fact that it is sharply worsening in a period in which there is often seemingly good news on the fiscal front.

State revenue is expected to go up in 2018-19 for a 10th straight year.

County assessors report a 6.5 percent increase in property taxes this year. That’s triple the rate of inflation and comes even with Proposition 13 preventing increases of more than 2 percent on homes, businesses and other properties that didn’t change hands.

In July, CalPERS announced a second straight year of above-average earnings on its investment portfolio, which rose in value to $357 billion.

This prompted a news release from a top state union leader disputing talk of CalPERS’ poor health.

“While it’s important not to focus on one-year returns, these returns continue the long-term trend of CalPERS performing above or near its long-term discount rates and once again defying the sky-is-falling predictions of system critics,” wrote Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Association.

But despite the good returns, as of July, CalPERS only had 71 percent of funds needed to pay for its long-term financial liabilities, the Sacramento Bee reported. That’s far below the 80 percent funding level that is considered the absolute minimum for a healthy pension system.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

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.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.