Pension Funds, Meet the “Super Bubble”

Earlier this month, outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown predicted “fiscal oblivion” if California’s state and local agencies are not granted more flexibility to modify pension benefits. As if to help Governor Brown make his point, U.S. stock indexes took an obliging plunge. The Dow Jones average cratered in December, dropping nearly 16 percent in three weeks, from 25,826 on December 3rd to a low of 21,792 on December 24th. And whither hence? Nobody knows.

If history and trends are any indication, however, “up” is unlikely. Depicted on the chart below is the performance of the Dow Jones Index from 1995, when the markets began first showing signs of “irrational exuberance,” to the extremely exuberant present day. Clearly shown are the past two bubbles, the internet bubble of 2000, the housing bubble of 2007, and what we may call the “super bubble” or “everything bubble” of 2018.

Dow Jones Stock Index – 1995-2018 

It doesn’t take an economist to notice a pattern here. The Dow Jones Index, which tracks closely with all publicly traded equities in the U.S., more than doubled in the four year heady run-up to its January 2000 peak, than went into decline for nearly four years, before doubling again between 2004 and 2007. Then when the housing bubble popped, the Dow went off a cliff, dropping to half its 2007 peak in little over a year. In the ten years since 2009, the Dow has exploded again, tripling to a high of 26,743 in September 2018. What now? Visually, at least, another correction is past-due.

There are all kinds of economic reasons why what is visually indicated on the above graph is exactly what’s going to happen. At best, we may hope for stocks to merely stop going up, which is sort of what happened after the internet bubble popped. But what’s different this time?

One key difference is that this time, lowering interest rates is not an option. In January 2000 the Federal Funds rate was 5.5 percent. By June of 2003 it had dropped to 1.0 percent. When interest rates drop, stocks become relatively better investments than fixed rate investments. Lower interest rates also induce more people to borrow, creating liquidity, stimulating consumer spending, which helps corporate earnings which drives up stock prices. The cause and effect is reflected in the stock market history – by 2003, after lowering interest rates by 4.5%, the stock market finally began to recover.

In October 2006 the rate had risen to 5.25 percent. In September 2007, as home sales were starting to drop, it was lowered to 4.75 percent. When the housing bubble popped, and the stock market crashed, the Federal Reserve responded by steady lowering of the Federal Funds Rate. By December 2016 it had dropped to 0.25 percent, the lowest rate possible. What should be of concern, is that the rate today, 2.5 percent, is only half as high as it was during the past peaks. During the previous two bull markets, the Federal Reserve was able to bounce the rate up to around 5 percent before the bears came calling. This time, assuming we’ve hit the peak, only half that increase, to 2.5 percent, was achievable.

A consequence of low interest rates is more borrowing, which is a good thing if that borrowing stimulates economic growth that translates into investments in productivity. But borrowing has not been used to stimulate productive investments. Instead, much of the corporate borrowing over the past decade has been used to finance stock buy-backs. This is a dangerous strategy, causing short-term growth in earnings per share, but loading debt onto corporate balance sheets that will have to be refinanced at interest rates that are increasing, at the same time as investment in research and modernizing plant and equipment has been neglected.

In recent years, borrowing has also been an overused tool of government, starting with the federal government. Federal borrowing accelerated in mid-2008, and hasn’t slowed down since, climbing to over $21 trillion by the 3rd quarter of 2018. As interest rates rise, servicing this debt will become far more difficult. Meanwhile, all U.S. credit market debt – government, corporate, and consumer – has continued to increase. After dipping slightly to $54 trillion in the wake of the burst housing bubble, it was up to a new high of $68 trillion by the end of 2017.

When interest rates fall, not only is the stock market stimulated. Bonds make payments at fixed rates, so when the market rate drops, the price of these bonds increases, since they can be sold for whatever price will give the buyer the same return as the current market rate. Interest rate reductions also cause housing prices to rise, since when interest rates are low, people can afford bigger mortgages since they will be making lower monthly payments. The opposite is also true, which is unfortunate for investors. All else held equal, rising interest rates means lower prices for bonds and housing.

What does this mean for pension funds?

When the super bubble pops this time, all assets will drop in value. Everything pension funds are invested in, equities, bonds, and real estate, will all drop in value. Even if extraordinary measures are taken to stop the decline – such as the fed purchasing corporate bonds – there will be nowhere to run. Public sector pension funds have not prepared for this day of reckoning. CalPERS, for example, in its most recent financial statements was only 71% funded. That would be ok at the end of a bear market, but at the end of a bull market, that is a disaster waiting to happen.

As it is, using CalPERS as an example, government agencies are going to have to nearly double their annual payments. The primary reason for this increase appears to be so the participating agencies will eliminate their unfunded liability on a 20 year repayment schedule. To-date, agencies were making those repayments on a 30 year term, and using creative accounting to minimize the payment amounts in the early years. CalPERS does not appear to have lowered the amount they are expecting their investments to earn, and this is critical. Because while they have lowered their expected rate of return to “only” 7.0 percent, they have also quietly lowered their long-term assumed inflation rate. This means they are still relying on nearly the same real rate of return for their investments.

When the super bubble pops, the challenges facing pension funds will not be the only economic problem facing Americans. Unwinding the debt accumulated during a credit binge lasting decades will impact all sectors of the economy. The last thing the fragile finances of government agencies will need is even higher required contributions to the failing pension funds. Instead those running these pension systems need to try new approaches, including modifying benefit formulas, but also redirecting investments into local infrastructure projects – projects that not only create jobs, but address practical and urgent goals such as building resilient, upgraded backbones for supplying water, energy, and transportation.

In early 2019, the California Supreme Court is about to issue one of its most consequential rulings ever, in the case CalFire Local 2881 vs. CalPERSIt is possible this ruling will grant government agencies (and voters) more flexibility to modify pension benefits. Such an opportunity cannot come too soon, if fiscal oblivion is to be avoided when the super bubble finally pops.

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

We Still Need to Reform Deferred Retirement Plans

pension-2In these waning days of the 2018 legislative session, pension reform once again was shoved into the future. That can’t last forever.

One bill I hope to bring back in an upcoming legislative session is Senate Bill 1433, concerning a clever retirement postponement gimmick called a Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP, for police and firefighters. But it’s a DROP kick for taxpayers, and an expensive one.

Let me explain this scheme. In an employee’s last five years with the municipality, they receive their salary and their pension. The pension benefits are deposited into a trust where it earns an attractive rate of interest. At the conclusion of the five years, the trust distributes the final balance along with the compounded interest income.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, new Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore was given a lump sum of $1.27 million from his DROP plan by first retiring, then being rehired in his new position. “Moore said in an interview that the plan to have him retire and then return almost immediately to work was proposed by former Chief Charlie Beck and approved by Mayor Eric Garcetti.”

I fully understand the motivation and the implementation of this plan. I can see why it is used and how politically difficult it is to discontinue allowing DROP plans as a management alternative.

And I am in no way inferring that Chief Moore and others who take advantage of DROPs are abusing the system. As someone who has earned a Certified Financial Planner designation earlier in my career, I certainly would advise anyone who qualifies for a DROP to take it.

It is the system that is wrong. It needs to be fixed.

Unfortunately, SB 1433 would not affect charter cities such as Los Angeles, which have a great deal of autonomy on such matters. But it would affect what are called ’37 Act counties, short for the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937. SB 1433 would prohibit altogether such a county or district from starting a new Deferred Retirement Option Program, or a public employee in a DROP jurisdiction from now participating in one.

Let’s stop the perception of abuse. Let’s eliminate a temptation that should never have been there in the first place. The experience of DROP participants in Los Angeles between July 2008 and July 2017 is not pretty.

Five points on that from an earlier Los Angeles Times story from April 15:

  1. Police and firefighters in the DROP program were nearly twice as likely to miss work for injuries, illness or paid leave.
  2. Those taking disability leave while in DROP missed a combined 2.4 million hours of work for leaves and sick time, and were paid more than $220 million for the time off.
  3. More than a third of police officers who entered the program, 36 percent, went out on an injury leave. At the fire department, it was 70 percent.
  4. The average time off for those who took injury leaves was nearly 10 months. At least 370 missed more than a year. This comes at a very steep cost.
  5. In addition to the salary and pension payments, leaves taken by DROP participants create a third cost for taxpayers. The fire department pays overtime to fill their vacant shifts. The Police Department requires other officers to cover their work.

Los Angeles is realizing that DROP plans are a mistake after costing the city an estimated $1.6 billion since 2001. Our state legislature should too. It should take a leadership role and totally discontinue allowing this unique strategy.

Sacramento needs to help local governments help themselves in addressing the pension crisis. This year would have been good. Next year, with a new governor and many new legislators, it is critical.

California State Senate, 37th District.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

The California Legislature passes the pension buck – again

PensionsIn truth, Sacramento politicians are very dependable. You can depend on them to raise your taxes, pass meaningless resolutions attacking President Trump and hurt the private sector by eliminating workplace arbitration and enacting even more burdensome regulations. And finally, they are very dependable in avoiding the most important threats to California’s financial solvency, especially dealing with unfunded pension liabilities.

Much has been written about California’s unfunded pension crisis. By 2024, normal contribution payments by cities and counties to CalPERS are estimated to total nearly $3 billion, and the unfunded contribution payments are estimated to total $5.5 billion. That shortfall of nearly $3 billion a year will continue to increase unless reforms are enacted – soon.

California’s pension crisis exists in large part due to the very nature of defined-benefit plans. Unlike defined-contribution plans, where the taxpayers’ obligation to each public employee ends with every pay period, defined-benefit plans depend on a projection of future investment returns. And therein lies the problem. California has been horribly wrong in its application of assumed rates of return, leading to hundreds of billions in unfunded liabilities.

And this shortfall is occurring in good economic times when the state of California is relatively flush. A recession will quickly expose this short-sighted thinking, yet the Legislature continues to believe that local municipalities will continue to pass regressive sales tax increases to bail themselves out. Already, 24 cities have sales tax rates at or over 9.5 percent, and more cities are destined to join them.

To read the entire column, please click here.

California Teacher Pension Debt Swamps School Budgets

School educationCalifornia’s public schools have enjoyed a remarkable restoration of funding since the bone-deep cuts they endured during the recession, but many are now facing a grave financial threat as they struggle to protect pensions crucial for teachers’ retirement.

Over the next three years, schools may need to use well over half of all the new money they’re projected to receive to cover their growing pension obligations, leaving little extra for classrooms, state Department of Finance and Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates show. This is true even though the California State Teachers’ Retirement System just beat its investment goals for the second straight year.

Some districts are predicting deficits and many districts are bracing for what’s to come by cutting programs, reducing staff or drawing down their reserves—even though per-pupil funding is at its highest level in three decades and voters recently extended a tax hike on the rich to help pay for schools.

At the same time, some districts are grappling with how to simultaneously afford raises for teachers who have threatened to strike.

The situation could become even more bleak if California’s economy doesn’t keep growing.

If there’s another recession – which economists say is increasingly likely given the record length of the expansion underway now – the higher pension payments scheduled could push some districts deeper into the red, Legislative Analyst’s Office data indicates.

“Many districts’ budgets would be upside down with expenses growing faster than revenues,” said Michael Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, the state agency responsible for overseeing schools with financial problems.

School systems that saved money over the last few years will be able to use it to buy time, Fine said, but those reserves “won’t eliminate the impact or make that problem go away.” Tackling it will likely require new sources of revenue or an array of cuts.

“Building maintenance could suffer, grounds care could suffer, class size could suffer, instructional coaches could suffer, athletic programs could suffer, technology could suffer, intervention programs could suffer” Fine said.

The problems stem from the state Legislature’s reticence to mandate steeper payments into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The system was badly underfunded and careening toward collapse four years ago when school districts, teachers and the state all agreed to pay more to reduce its unfunded liability, which now stands at $107 billion.

Districts took on the greatest share of those new costs, agreeing to increase payments from 8 percent of their payroll in 2013 to 19 percent by 2020.

No matter how burdensome the larger and larger pension payments may be, actuaries say they’re necessary to protect teachers’ hard-earned retirement and prevent the system from running out of money. Teachers don’t get social security, and unlike firefighters or police officers, most retirees earn modest pensions of about $55,000 a year.

The Brown administration has directed an additional $20 billion to the state’s public schools since 2013 and says districts have had plenty of time to plan for the pension payments ahead. But many school leaders and advocates want the state to invest even more, especially since California still ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending compared to other states.

“Knowing that these liabilities were growing, we provided districts with the resources they needed to plan accordingly,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest teachers union is downplaying the problem and encouraging its members to bargain for raises. California’s teachers may be among the nation’s most generously paid, but they say the money doesn’t go very far because the state’s cost of living is so high.

School officials are left with a Gordian knot of politically charged problems, forced to make escalating payments into the pension fund while trying to elevate disadvantaged students’ sagging classroom performance, which remains among the country’s worst despite the state’s big investment in their learning through a policy championed by Brown.

“We need to graduate more kids and close academic achievement gaps, but we can’t move the needle when costs are rising like this,” said Dennis Meyers, executive director of the California School Boards Association, who stressed that his group is not seeking to reduce teachers’ retirement benefits.

“We simply need more revenue, and we’re out here waving the white flag, looking for relief.”

Each of California’s school districts is bound to tackle these challenges differently, so CALmatters visited three of them whose circumstances are emblematic of what others across the state are experiencing. During those visits, we spoke with the people working to solve the problem.

Fremont Unified devotes a greater share of its budget to salary than any other district in the state (discover the percentage devoted to salaries at each of California’s school districts here). So when the largest pension payments are phased in, Fremont will be hit especially hard. That means the district’s budget could face cuts even as enrollment in the Bay Area school system grows.

Sacramento City Unified knew that larger pension payments were coming and saved money to prepare for them. Then the local teachers union criticized the district for hoarding cash and threatened to strike. Now, the contested funds are being used to finance a raise that teachers say is long overdue and that the county superintendent believes the district can’t afford.

And in Los Angeles, growing demand for charter schools and a dwindling birth rate has led to declining enrollment in the district’s own schools, which means pension payments will rise even as the district’s state funding shrinks. School officials recently predicted that a quarter billion dollar budget deficit was just two years away.

♦♦♦

Raul Parungao’s distinctive grin and his cheery demeanor belie his concern about Fremont Unified’s finances.

Situated between Oakland and San Jose in the pricey Bay Area, the school system pays its employees more than most. That makes it a desirable place to work but also means it will be hit especially hard when the largest payments required under Brown’s pension plan are phased in.

“There’s this sense in the community that we’re flush with cash, but I try to remind people about the other half of the story,” said Parungao, the district’s chief business officer.

Even though revenue is rising because enrollment is growing, the district must hire and pay more employees to serve them. And over the next three years, while Fremont predicts its revenue will grow by $26 million, a 7 percent bump, it also expects its employee pension and health care costs to climb by $14 million, a 23 percent surge.

“Here’s the bottom line: the extra revenue we expect to get from the state won’t be enough to keep pace with our pension contributions,” Parungao said. “The problem hasn’t exploded big yet, but it will. It’s only a matter of time. I haven’t met another chief business official who isn’t concerned about this.”

Meanwhile, Fremont’s teachers just won a small raise after months of protracted negotiations.

The current pay scale is competitive, with veterans making $114,000 a year, but leaders of the local union say about half of teachers still don’t make enough to live in the district and must commute from up to an hour away.

But no matter how tough it may be for the district to afford this 1 percent pay hike, teachers deserve one, said Victoria Birbeck, the union’s president.

“The series of small raises we’ve received haven’t covered cost of living,” she said. “Besides, the district has known about the governor’s plan for a few years now. There should have been better planning.”

Parungao said planning isn’t the problem.

The district stretched to offer teachers a raise last year and even had to shift its budget by millions of dollars to accommodate that 2 percent increase, which came after a 13 percent bump over the prior three years. Plans to upgrade students’ textbooks and computers were postponed and class size for kindergarten, first and second grade students increased slightly.

Given the district’s rising pension and other fixed costs, the new agreement’s $7 million price tag will be tough to accommodate. Still, Michele Burke, one of the district’s board members, acknowledged that for many teachers, $1 spent on pensions isn’t as good as $1 spent on salary.

“As we negotiate with the union, STRS is the elephant in the room,” she said in an interview before the deal was finalized, referring to the acronym for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. “We’re paying toward your future, but those payments don’t help put food on the dinner table.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg only worked with a few key players one weekend last fall when he helped broker a deal to avert a citywide teacher strike, and former school board president Jay Hansen was one of them.

Hansen had tried for months to negotiate the terms of a pay increase for the city’s 3,000 teachers, but the district and leaders of the local teachers union were far apart and neither side would budge. An acrimonious relationship between the two camps was partly to blame for the impasse.

“It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Hansen said. “No one remembers why they can’t get along.”

At issue during the talks was the $81 million sitting in Sacramento City Unified’s savings account, a sum the district had built up over several years with spoils from California’s booming economy.

The union said the money should go toward class size reduction and raises for teachers that would make the district a more attractive place to work. Sacramento educators are paid less than their peers in nearby districts, but they also receive more generous lifetime health benefits, records show. The district said that it had saved the money to help cover rising pension and employee health care costs in the lean budget years ahead.

In the end, Steinberg helped craft an agreement that gives Sacramento teachers an 11 percent raise over three years. But just a few weeks after Steinberg announced the deal during a celebratory news conference on the steps of City Hall, Sacramento County Superintendent Dave Gordon delivered some bad news: the district can’t afford it.

“Based on the review of the public disclosure and the multi-year projections provided by the district, our office has concerns over the district’s ability to afford this compensation package and maintain ongoing fiscal solvency,” Gordon wrote in a December letter to the district.

The district’s own budget offers proof of Gordon’s concerns.

Over the next three years, the school system anticipates its revenue will grow by $6 million, a 1 percent increase, while its pension and health care costs grow by more than $18 million, an 11 percent increase. A popular summer program for struggling students has already been eliminated to save money.

A second letter Gordon sent in January further underscores his concerns. He called the district’s plan to use one-time money to help cover the cost of the new contract a “poor business practice” that “only perpetuates the district’s ongoing structural deficit.”

“The pension contributions are putting a strain on everyone’s budgets,” Gordon said in an interview.

Even though Hansen had been the union’s adversary during months of stalled contract talks, he defended the district’s decision to offer teachers a raise, calling it “the right thing to do” despite the school system’s escalating pension and health care costs. “We did it anyway,” he added.

Steinberg echoed Hansen’s perspective.

“A strike would have been calamitous for everybody,” he said. And Sacramento isn’t the only place in California where teachers are thinking about a show of force. At least half a dozen other local unions fighting for higher wages have held labor actions in recent months.

In an interview with CALmatters that union leaders cut short after refusing to answer some questions, Executive Director John Borsos rejected any suggestion that the district won’t be able to afford the contract it recently signed or that it ever claimed to have needed the money stockpiled in its savings account to cover rising pension costs.

“They have more than enough to cover the pension increases,” Borsos said. “And they didn’t make that argument at the bargaining table.”

♦♦♦

Gov. Jerry Brown promised his 2014 funding plan would shore-up California’s teacher pension system, but at least one young Los Angeles teacher, Josh Brown, says he’s not counting on it. The Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School special educator is so worried about the system’s solvency that he has an alternative retirement plan: using a portion of his salary to invest in the stock market.

“I’m a fifth-year teacher, I’m 30 years old, and I’m paying into a pension system that may or may not be around when I retire,” he said. “If I were 65-years-old and retiring soon, I would feel differently. Right now, I feel frustrated and worried.”

The largest payments required under the plan will be tough for many districts to manage, but they’re going to be especially vexing for large urban districts like Los Angeles Unified, which lost 100,000 students in the last decade and expects to shed more (here’s the toll of that under-enrollment, school by school). That’s a problem because California’s schools are funded on a per-pupil basis and fewer students means less money.

In Los Angeles, the swift enrollment decline is due to a dwindling birthrate and growing demand for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, meaning their budgets are separate from the district’s.

Over the next three years, the district anticipates its employee pension and health care costs will climb $90 million, a 5 percent increase, while its revenue dips about $270 million, a 4 percent decline. The result is a $258 million budget deficit in 2020 that the district can no longer paper over, push off or ignore.

“We’re going to have to tighten our belts to save our schools,” said Nick Melvoin, a board member whose stark views on district finances have been criticized by skeptical local union leaders and fellow board members. “We’re in a death spiral.”

The district plans to tackle the deficit with a one-time $105 million bailout from the state and central office staff reductions. But observers says officials will soon need to consider some painful measures it has so far been able to avoid, like boosting high school class sizes or closing schools with dwindling numbers of students.

At least 55 schools across the district are under-enrolled by a quarter, and ten of those are half empty, a CALmatters analysis of building capacity and enrollment data shows.

“Our costs are rising, and as a result, there are hard choices and trade-offs to make each time we look at the budget,” said Scott Price, the district’s chief financial officer.

Parent Paul Robak fears that if the district doesn’t tackle its budget problems soon, it could be taken over by the state. At a recent board meeting, he urged the members to reject a healthcare spending plan that would further squeeze the budget. The members listened and thanked him for testifying before approving the agreement.

“It’s as if the board members are prancing down the lane and covering their ears, pretending nothing’s wrong,” said Robak, who has been active on the district’s parent councils for a decade. “Everyone will lose if we fail to act.”

Board member Kelly Gonez also acknowledged the district’s budget woes and the pressure of rising pension and health care costs but said officials should be trying to ease the pain by finding new sources of revenue, not by making cuts. All but one other board member declined to comment.

Even as a fiscal crisis looms, Los Angeles teachers are negotiating for a raise.

“Everyone who works in the district comes to work with an expectation they’re going to be treated fairly. They need to be treated fairly,” Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and the district’s new superintendent, told the Los Angeles Times. “How we strike that balance remains to be seen.”

United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl declined CALmatters’ request for an interview. However, at a Pepperdine University event held before the state bailout was announced, he pledged to keep pushing for more money and predicted that the state would come through.

“If we take it off the table,” Caputo-Pearl said, “then we are acknowledging that the public district system is going to go off a fiscal cliff, which (is something) I’m not willing to acknowledge.”

♦♦♦

Flooded with calls from anxious school officials, Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Canada Flintridge and several other Democrats pushed earlier this year for a fix that would boost districts’ funding by $1 billion a year. In the end, Portantino convinced Brown to include about half as much in the state budget he signed a few weeks ago.

He insisted that the money be “flexible,” meaning districts may use it to cover rising pension costs or for anything else. But California’s schools are still underfunded compared to other states, and to better fulfill their responsibility to students and taxpayers, that must change, he said.

“In a few months, we’ll have a new governor with a new set of priorities,” Portantino said. “Is there more to do? Absolutely.”

CalSTRS’ first official report on the impact of districts’ growing pension obligations is due to the Legislature mid next year, when school budgets will likely be squeezed the most.

In the meantime, Fine hopes a recession doesn’t strike soon and that districts can manage their budgets without needing to make cuts or send out pink slips. He was a deputy superintendent in Riverside during the Great Recession and remembers how painful it was to carry out round after round of layoffs.

“We lost one of the best counselors and some very bright teachers. I had to layoff someone who years earlier had taught my young children how to swim,” Fine said. “I remember their faces.”

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

Local Officials Avoid Pension Discussion as They Push New Taxes

TaxesWhile public and media attention to this week’s primary election focused – understandably so – on contests for governor, U.S. senator and a handful of congressional seats, there were other important issues on Californians’ ballots.

One, which received scant attention at best, was another flurry of local government and school tax and bond proposals.

The California Taxpayers Association counted 98 proposals to raise local taxes directly, or indirectly through issuance of bonds that would require higher property taxes to repay.

The proposed taxes on legal marijuana sales and other retail sales and “parcel taxes” on pieces of real estate were particularly noteworthy for how they were presented to voters.

Most followed the playbook that highly paid strategists peddle to local officials, advising them to promise improvements in popular services, such as police and fire protection and parks, and avoid any mention of the most important factor in deteriorating fiscal circumstances – the soaring cost of public employee pensions.

City, county and school district officials howl constantly, albeit mostly in private, that ever-increasing, mandatory payments to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) are driving some entities to the brink of insolvency.

However, those officials are just as consistently unwilling to tell their voters that pension costs are the basic underlying factor in their requests for tax increases.

Why?

Tying tax increases to pensions, rather than popular services, not only would make voters less likely to vote for them but make public employee unions less willing to pony up campaign funds to sell the tax increases to voters. It is, in effect, a conspiracy of silence.

This week’s local tax and bond measures are just a tuneup for what will likely be a much larger batch on the November ballot.

It’s a well-established axiom of California politics that low-turnout elections, such as a non-presidential primary in June, are not as friendly to tax proposals as higher-turnout general elections, such as the one in November. Primaries tend to draw more older white voters who often shun taxes, while general elections have younger and more ethnically diverse electorates more attuned to taxes.

As local officials make plans to place those proposals on the November ballot, a bill making its way through the Legislature could skew local tax politics even more.

Senate Bill 958 would allow one school district, Davis Unified, to exempt its own employees from paying the $620 per year parcel tax that its voters approved two years ago.

The Senate approved SB 958 on a 24-19 vote last month, sending it to the Assembly. It’s being carried by Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat whose district includes Davis.

The bill’s rationale is that housing is so expensive in Davis that teachers and other school employees cannot afford to live there, and that exempting them from the parcel tax would, at least in theory, make housing more affordable.

However, if SB 958 becomes law, it would set a dangerous precedent. It doesn’t take much imagination to see local government and school unions throughout the state demanding similar exemptions from new taxes with the threat, explicit or implicit, that they would refuse to finance tax measure campaigns.

The very people who benefit most from additional taxes by receiving higher salaries and/or better fringe benefits thus would be able to avoid paying those taxes themselves.

Where would it end?

olumnist for CALmatters

California Can’t Afford to Play Politics with Pensions

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 21: A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building July 21, 2009 in Sacramento, California. CalPERS, the state's public employees retirement fund, reported a loss of 23.4%, its largest annual loss. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

As a former mayor of the city of Newport Beach, I took very seriously the financial obligations related to our pension liabilities, the impact of pension costs on city services and the ability to keep our commitments to our employees, which is why recent developments in California concern me.

For years, a small group of voices nationwide has called for universities, pension funds, and other groups who hold investments in fossil fuels to abandon those investments. This movement, known as divestment, believes that abstaining from investment in fossil fuels is key to combating climate change. However, the divestment movement has found it difficult to gain traction, in large part because making political statements through public or institutional investments runs counter to the fiduciary responsibility of pension fund managers. Those who depend on pensions expect their fund managers to make decisions based off sound and profitable investment strategy, not political agendas. There is also no real evidence that walking away from fossil fuel stocks does anything to actually help the environment.

Frustrated by their failure to gain ground, divestment advocates have turned to new methods of create momentum. For example, state lawmakers in California have been asked to consider a rash of bills related to pension funds. In 2017, the legislature considered two bills related to this topic. Senate Bill 560, which ultimately died, would have required CalPERS and CalSTRS, pension funds that serve California’s teachers and public employees, to consider climate risk when managing their funds. Assembly Bill 20 forced these pension funds to examine their financial holdings related to the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. This year, a third bill, Senate Bill 964, would require CalPERS and CalSTRS to report every three years on any investments related to climate change.  If these well-intentioned but misguided policies are enacted, the impacts will be felt by cities through rising pension liabilities and a reduction in funds available for basic city services like public safety and parks.

Rebranding their efforts to focus on climate risks, as opposed to directly calling for the abandonment of fossil fuel holdings, divestment advocates are taking new approaches toward the same goal. But while some might view these bills as well-intentioned measures to help the environment, the reality is quite different.

For starters, there is no evidence that these measures do anything to help the environment or combat climate change. Even Assembly Bill 20, with its targeted focus on a single pipeline, has had no impacts on the Dakota Access Pipeline’s investments or implementation. Rather, the value of passing such a measure lies mostly in its symbolism, a fact acknowledged by Bill McKibben, an environmental activist helping to drive the divestment agenda.

In practice, “climate risk” measures open the door for playing politics with retirement funds. This is especially dangerous for large funds tasked with protecting the future of Californians. Consider, for example, that the state’s public employees fund, CalPERS, manages the largest public pension fund in the United States, serving nearly 2 million people and holding around $300 billion in assets. CalSTRS, which serves education employees, is the world’s largest educator-only pension fund and the second largest pension fund in the U.S., managing a portfolio of more than $200 billion. Recent figures show that more than 200,000 retirees currently depend on CalSTRS for their pensions. Divestment from tobacco related stocks has already cost the CalPERS system more than $3 billion according to recent studies. We simply cannot afford more of this waste.

There is clearly an incredible amount at stake when it comes to managing these funds and others like them in California, with job number one being safeguarding the money that these employees worked so hard to earn. Both CalPERS and CalSTRS, California’s two largest pension funds, explicitly require fund managers to adhere to their fiduciary responsibilities. Misguided legislation requiring pension managers to follow political agendas when managing money only distracts from that duty, putting public funds and retirement nest eggs at great risk. Now more than ever, pension managers must focus on achieving returns that address the looming unfunded pension crisis, not on playing politics.

The truth is that divestment and related ideas like climate risk have always lived on shaky ground. Instead of walking away from investments in fossil fuels and losing a seat at the table, isn’t the better approach to affect change through active engagement? Instead of requiring pension fund managers to mitigate climate risks, shouldn’t we allow them to fulfill their fiduciary duty and leave climate discussions to policymakers? Hopefully retirees and their elected officials are paying attention to this dangerous rebrand of the divestment movement.  The consequences are higher unfunded pension liabilities and the crowding out of municipal services.  With today’s turbulent financial markets, it is more important than ever that we protect the hard-earned money of Californians.

Keith Curry is a former Mayor of Newport Beach and former financial advisor to state and local governments.

Who will end up paying CalPERS’ $168 billion in unfunded liabilities?

pension-2California’s public employee pension systems have immense gaps – called “unfunded liabilities” – between what they have in assets and what they will need to meet their obligations to retirees.

The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), the nation’s largest pension trust fund, and other state and local systems are desperately trying to close those shortfalls, or at least reduce them, mostly by ramping up mandatory “contributions” from public agencies.

Everyone is getting hit by those rapidly escalating demands and it’s no secret that they are pushing some school districts and cities to the brink of insolvency, forcing them to slash other spending, even vital police and fire services, and/or seek higher taxes from their voters to keep their heads above water.

Moreover, the squeeze is destined to get even tighter. For instance, cities that are now paying 50 cents into CalPERS for every dollar of police officers’ salaries are projecting that it could go to 75 or 80 cents within a few years.

School districts are feeling a double whammy – a more than doubling of their mandatory payments to the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) for their professional staffs, plus increasing demands from CalPERS for their support staffs.

The state government itself is not immune. Last week, CalPERS told Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators that they must include $6.3 billion in the 2018-19 state budget to cover state employee pensions, making it one of the budget’s largest single items.

CalPERS officials send mixed messages to the public about the gap, on one hand saying that they must jack up contributions to avoid having it grow so large that the trust fund can never catch up, but on the other crowing about recent investment earnings and insisting that retirees and employees should feel confident that their money will be there when it’s needed.

This month, the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has followed the nationwide public pension issue closely, issued a report that examines the systems’ unfunded liabilities, and explains why some states have big gaps while others are fully funded, or nearly so.

Nationwide, Pew calculated, the total gap for all states grew by $215 billion between 2015 and 2016 to $1.4 trillion – and that assumes that the systems will meet their investment earnings assumptions of 7-plus percent a year.

Actual 2016 earnings, including those in California, fell extremely short of those assumptions, but even if they had been met, Pew says, unfunded liabilities would still have grown because most states, including California, also fell short on employer payments needed to cover ever-growing pension obligations.

That’s an important point. Even though CalPERS and other systems have sharply accelerated payments from employers, they still fell short in 2016 of what was needed to keep the gap from growing. California’s contribution shortfall, in fact, was the nation’s sixth highest in relative terms.

Pew agrees with the official CalPERS calculation that it was 69 percent funded in 2016, which is slightly higher than the 66 percent level for state pension systems nationwide. That’s a $168 billion unfunded liability – again assuming that it will meet its earnings goals, which is dropping slowly to 7 percent.

In contrast, New York’s system is 91 percent funded because it steadily dealt with earnings downturns and funded benefit increases, rather than allow shortfalls to accumulate, as California and many other states did, until they reached the crisis point.

CalPERS says that an uptick in 2017 earnings, to more than 11 percent, has raised its funding level to 71 percent. That’s obviously good news, but CalPERS’ own staff estimates that earnings over the next decade should barely average 6 percent a year, which, if true, would mean the system would either have to allow its funding level to decline or hit state and local government employers – and, of course, their taxpayers – even harder.

It’s a balancing act. CalPERS and the other systems are trying to avoid insolvency without driving their members over the fiscal cliff. Rising pension costs are driving many cities to ask voters for sales tax increases this year, but they won’t be telling those voters the truth about why new revenue is needed, fearing candor would spark a backlash.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org