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

Will the California Supreme Court Reform the “California Rule?”

California Supreme CourtMost pension experts believe that without additional reform, pension payments are destined to put an unsustainable burden on California’s state and local governments. Even if pension fund investments meet their performance objectives over the next several years, California’s major pension funds have already announced that payments required from participating agencies are going to roughly double in the next six years. This is a best-case scenario, and it is already more than many cities and counties are going to be able to afford.

California’s first major statewide attempt to reform pensions was the PEPRA (Public Employee Pension Reform Act) legislation, which took effect on January 1st, 2013. This legislation reduced pension benefit formulas and increased required employee contributions, but for the most part only affected employees hired after January 1st, 2013.

The reason PEPRA didn’t significantly affect current employees was due to the so-called “California Rule,” a legal argument that interprets state and federal constitutional law to, in effect, prohibit changes to pension benefits for employees already working. The legal precedent for what is now called the California Rule was set in 1955, when the California Supreme Court ruled on a challenge to a 1951 city charter amendment in Allen v. City of of Long Beach. The operative language in that ruling was the following: “changes in a pension plan which result in disadvantage to employees should be accompanied by comparable new advantages.

To learn more about the origin of the California Rule, how it has set a legal precedent not only in California but in dozens of other states, two authoritative sources are “Overprotecting Public Employee Pensions: The Contract Clause and the California Rule,” written by Alexander Volokh in 2014 for the Reason Foundation, and “Statutes as Contracts? The ‘California Rule’ and Its Impact on Public Pension Reform,” written by Amy B. Monahan, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, published in the Iowa Law Review in 2012.

Pension benefits, most simply stated, are based on a formula: Years worked times a “multiplier,” times final salary. Thus for each year a public employee works, the eventual pension they will earn upon retirement gets bigger. Starting back in 1999, California’s public sector employee unions successfully negotiated to increase their multiplier, which greatly increased the value of their pensions. In the case of the California Highway Patrol, for example, the multiplier went from 2% to 3%. But in nearly all cases, these increases to the multiplier didn’t simply apply to years of employment going forward. Instead, they were applied retroactively. For example, in a typical hypothetical case, an employee who had been employed for 29 years and was to retire one year hence would not get a pension equivalent to [ 29 x 2% + 1 x 3% ] x final salary. Instead, now they would get a pension equivalent to 30 x 3% x final salary.

Needless to say this significantly changed the size of the future pension liability. For years the impact of this change was smoothed over using creative accounting. But now it has come back to haunt California’s cities and counties.

Amazingly, the California rule doesn’t just prevent retroactive reductions to the pension multiplier. Reducing the multiplier retroactively might seem to be reasonable, since the multiplier was increased retroactively. But the California rule, as it is interpreted by public employee unions, also prevents reductions to the multiplier from now on. And on that question the California Supreme Court has an opportunity, this year, to make history.

Ironically, the active cases currently pending at the California Supreme Court were initiated by the unions themselves. In particular, they have challenged the PEPRA reform that prohibits what is known as “pension spiking,” where at the end of a public employee’s career they take steps to increase their pension. Spiking can take the form of increasing final pension eligible salary – which can be accomplished in various ways including a final year promotion or transfer that results in a much higher final salary. Another form of spiking is to increase the total number of pension eligible years worked, and the most common way to accomplish this is through the purchase of what is called “air time.”

Based on fuzzy math, the pension systems have offered retiring employees the opportunity to pay a lump sum into the pension system in exchange for more “service credits.” Someone with, say, ten years of service, upon retirement could pay (often the payment that would be financed, requiring no actual payment) to acquire five additional years of service credits. This would increase the amount of their pension by 50%, since their pension would now be based on fifteen years x 3% x final salary, instead of 10 years x 3% x final salary. To say this is a prized perk would be an understatement. How it became standard operating procedure, much less how the payments made were calculated to somehow justify such a major increase to pension benefits, is inexplicable. But when PEPRA included in its reform package an end to spiking, even for veteran employees, the unions went to court.

The spiking case that has wound its way to the California Supreme Court with the most disruptive potential started in Alameda County, then was appealed to California’s First Appellate Court District Three. The original parties to the lawsuit were the plaintiffs, Cal Fire Local 2881, vs CalPERS (Appellate Court case). On December 30, 2016, the appellate court ruled that PEPRA’s ban on pension spiking via purchases of airtime would stand. The union then appealed to the California Supreme Court.

An excellent compilation of the ongoing chronology of the California Supreme Court case Cal Fire Local 2881 v. CalPERS (CA Supreme Court case) can be found on the website of the law firm Messing, Adam and Jasmine. It will show that by February 2017 the unions filed a petition for review by the California Supreme Court, and that the court granted review in April 2017. In November 2017, Governor Brown got involved in the case, citing a compelling state interest in the outcome. Apparently not trusting his attorney general nor CalPERS to adequately defend PEPRA, the Governor’s office joined the case as an “intervener” in opposition to Cal Fire Local 2881. For nearly a year, both petitioners and respondents to the case have been filing briefs.

This case, which informed observers believe could be ruled on by the end of 2018, is not just about airtime. Because whether or not purchasing airtime is protected by the California Rule requires clarification of the California Rule. The ruling could be narrow, simply affirming or rejecting the ability of public employees to purchase airtime. Or the ruling could be quite broad, asserting that the California Rule does not entitle public employees to irreducible pension benefits, of any kind, to apply for work not yet performed.

One of many reviews of the legal issues confronting the California Supreme Court in this case is found in the amicus brief prepared by the California Business Roundtable in support of the respondents. A summary of the points raised in the California Business Roundtable’s amicus brief is available on the website of the Retirement Security Initiative, an advocacy organization focused on protecting and ensuring the fairness and sustainability of public sector retirement plans. An excerpt from that summary:

“The Roundtable brief asserts the California Rule has numerous legal flaws:

(1) It violates the bedrock principle that statutes create contractual rights only when the Legislature clearly intended to do so.

(2) It violates black-letter contract law by creating contractual rights that violate the reasonable expectations of the parties.

(3) It violates longstanding constitutional law by assuming that every contractual impairment automatically violates the California and Federal Contract Clauses.

(4) It lacks persuasive or precedential value. The Rule was initially adopted without anything resembling a full consideration of the relevant issues.

(5) It has been almost uniformly rejected by federal and state courts—including by several courts that previously accepted it.

(6) It has had—and will continue to have—devastating economic consequences on California’s public employers.”

Pension reform, and pension reformers, have often been characterized as “right-wing puppets of billionaires” by the people and organizations that disagree. The fact that one of the most liberal governors in the nation, Jerry Brown, actively intervened in this case in support of the respondent and in opposition to the unions, should put that characterization to rest.

If the California Supreme Court does dramatically clarify the California Rule, enabling pension benefit formulas to be altered for future work, it will only adjust the legal parameters in the fight over pensions in favor of reformers. After such a ruling there would still be a need for follow on legislation or ballot initiatives to actually make those changes.

What California’s elected officials and union leadership, for the most part, are belatedly realizing, is that without more pension reform, the entire institution of defined benefit pensions is imperiled. Hopefully California’s Supreme Court will soon make it easier for them all to make hard choices, to prevent such a dire outcome.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

REFERENCES

California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case
– California Policy Center

California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (PEPRA): Summary And Comment
– Employee Benefits Law Group

Allen v. City of of Long Beach
– Stanford University Law Library

Overprotecting Public Employee Pensions: The Contract Clause and the California Rule
– Alexander Volokh, Reason Foundation

Statutes as Contracts? The ‘California Rule’ and Its Impact on Public Pension Reform
– Amy Monahan, Iowa Law Review

Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?
– California Policy Center

Cal Fire Local 2881, vs CalPERS (Appellate Court case)
– JUSTIA US Law Archive

Cal Fire Local 2881 v. CalPERS, California Supreme Court, Case No. S239958 – Case Review
– Messing, Adams and Jasmine

Intervener and Respondent State of California’s Answer Brief on the Merits
– Amicus Brief, Governor’s Office, State of California

Amicus Brief of the California Business Roundtable in Support of Respondents
– Amicus Brief, California Business Roundtable (CBR)

RSI Supports California Business Roundtable Amicus Brief
– Summary of CBR Amicus Brief by Retirement Security Initiative

Resources for California’s Pension Reformers
– California Policy Center

Oakland Unified Besieged by Skyrocketing Pension Costs, Declining Enrollment

OaklandIt’s been a tumultuous era in Oakland. The Police Department has been enmeshed in an ugly scandal surrounding officers’ involvement with an underage sex worker that led to an officer’s suicide, firings and turnover in the chief’s office. City Hall was unable to prevent the Oakland Raiders from agreeing to move to Las Vegas. And in the past month, Mayor Libby Schaaf has engaged in a high-profile war of words with President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions over her opposition to federal immigration control efforts in her city.

But now Oakland is also wrestling with a painfully familiar story: financial turmoil in local schools. The state took some of Oakland Unified’s autonomy in 2003 after the Legislature approved an emergency $100 million loan to the then-reeling district. With $40 million of the loan still unpaid, the state continues to oversee district spending, though with a smaller role. Now there are new indications that even Oakland Unified’s limited autonomy could disappear for another long stretch as school officials struggle to make ends meet yet again.

In recent months, district officials had to approve what were described as “emergency” $9 million cuts in the district’s $521 million general fund 2017-18 budget and to authorize potentially greater reductions in 2018-19 as well. The cuts were widely denounced in public meetings as unnecessary and indicative of poor management.

This criticism has been buttressed by the Fiscal Crisis Management Action Team (FCMAT), the state agency that works with struggling school districts. In an August report, FCMAT warned that a “fiscal emergency” loomed if Oakland Unified officials didn’t quit spending reserve funds to cover budget shortfalls. FCMAT depicted the Oakland school board as irresponsible for approving cumulative raises for teachers of 14.5 percent in the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years in a three-year span in which the cost of living went up by less than 2 percent. These pay hikes were the biggest drain on district reserves.

Oakland board members brought more criticism on themselves in January when they approved 5 percent pay raises for themselves. While the total amounts were small – $39 per board member per month – San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis Taylor Jr. wrote that district students and parents were appropriately “livid” about the salary boost at a time when schools often lacked funds for basics like toilet paper.

A recent East Bay Times analysis suggested there was plenty of blame to go around for Oakland Unified’s fiscal headaches. It largely absolved district Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel, who took over in January 2017, noting her predecessor had failed to follow through on plans to lay off 42 employees because declining enrollment had left the district with less than 37,000 students. Since enrollment directly determines how much state aid comes to districts, well-run districts usually reduce employees when enrollment drops. With enrollment down 33 percent from its 1999 peak of 55,000, Oakland Unified has thus faced constant pressure to downsize.

Pension costs grow 132% per teacher by 2020

But information distributed by the district before Oakland Unified trustees approved the recent $9 million in cuts pointed to another budget culprit – one that is hammering districts statewide. That is the bailout of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System approved by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. It phases in an 80 percent increase in annual contributions to CalSTRS from fiscal 2014-15 to fiscal 2020-21 – going from $5.9 billion a year to $10.9 billion.

More than two-thirds of this additional cost must be borne by local school districts. In 2014-15, they were required to pay 8.25 percent of teacher payroll to CalSTRS. Beginning in fall 2020, that amount will be 19.1 percent – a 132 percent increase in per-teacher pension funding obligations. Even in districts with high numbers of English-language learners – which receive additional funding under the Local Control Funding Formula, a 2013 state law – pension obligations have created major headaches.

School Services of California – a consultant which advises a large majority of the state’s 1,000 school districts – estimated last July that at least 280 districts would struggle to pay bills in the 2017-18 school year. A San Jose Mercury-Newsanalysis at the time suggested that the just-ended 2016-17 school year might be looked back on in 10 years “as the last good year in recent times for public education.”

The August 2017 FCMAT report on Oakland Unified raised additional concerns about why the district would struggle with its finances in coming years beyond inadequate funding. FCMAT faulted the district for inadequate internal budget controls, for allowing significant expenditures without board approval and for inadequate training of officials with budget responsibilities.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

The Underrecognized, Undervalued, Underpaid, Unfunded Pension Liabilities

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)

“It’s the economy, stupid.”
–  Campaign slogan, Clinton campaign, 1992

To paraphrase America’s 42nd president, when it comes to public sector pensions – their financial health and the policies that govern them – it’s the unfunded liability, stupid.

The misunderstood, obfuscated, unaccountable, underrecognized, undervalued, underpaid, unfunded pension liabilities.

According to CalPERS own data, California’s cities that are part of the CalPERS system will make “normal” contributions this year totaling $1.3 billion. Their “unfunded” contributions will be 41% greater, $1.8 billion. As for counties that participate in CalPERS, this year their “normal” contributions will total $586 million, and their “unfunded” contributions will be 36% greater at $607 million.

That’s nothing, however. Again using CalPERS own estimates, in just six years the unfunded contribution for cities will more than double, from $1.8 billion today, to $3.9 billion in 2024. The unfunded contribution for counties will nearly triple, from $607 million today to $1.5 billion in 2024 (download spreadsheet summary for all CalPERS cities and counties).

Put another way, by 2024, “normal contribution” payments by cities and counties to CalPERS are estimated to total $2.8 billion, and the “unfunded contribution” payments are estimated to total almost exactly twice as much, $5.5 billion.

So what?

For starters, every pension reform that has ever made it through the state legislature, including the Public Employee Pension Reform Act of 2013(PEPRA), does NOT require public employees to share in the cost to pay the unfunded liability. The implications are profound. As public agency press releases crow over the phasing in of a “50% employee share” of the costs of pensions, not mentioned is the fact that this 50% only applies to 1/3 of what’s being paid. Public employees are only required to share, via payroll withholding, in the “normal cost” of the pension.

Now if the “normal cost” were ever estimated at anywhere near the actual cost to fund a pension, this wouldn’t matter. But CalPERS, according to their own most recent financial report, is only 68% funded. That is, they have investments totaling $326 billion, and liabilities totaling $477 billion. This gap, $151 billion, is how much more CalPERS needs to have invested in order for their pension system to be fully funded.

A pension system’s “liability” refers to the present value of every future pension payment that every current participant – active or retired – has earned so far. In a 100% funded system, if every active employee retired tomorrowand no more payments ever went into the system, if the invested assets were equal to that liability, those assets plus the estimated future earnings on those invested assets would be enough to pay 100% of the estimated pension payments in the future, until every individual beneficiary died.

A pension system’s “normal payment” refers to the amount of money that has to be paid into a fully funded system each year to fund the present value of additional pension benefits earned by active employees in that year. When the normal payment isn’t enough, the unfunded liability grows.

And wow, has it grown.

CalPERS is $151 billion in the hole. All of California’s state and local pension systems combined, CalPERS, CalSTRS, and the many city and county independent systems, are estimated to be $326 billion in the hole. And that’s extrapolated from estimates recognized by the pension funds themselves. Scenarios that employ more conservative earnings assumptions calculate total unfunded liabilities that are easily double that amount.

With respect to CalPERS, how did this unfunded liability get so big?

An earlier CPC analysis released earlier this year attempts to answer this. Theories include the following: (1) Letting the agencies decide which type of asset smoothing they’d like to employ, (2) permitting the agencies to make minimal payments on the unfunded liability so the liability would actually increase despite the payments, (3) making overly optimistic actuarial assumptions, (4) not taking action sooner so the unfunded payment wouldn’t end up being more than twice as much as the normal payment.

One final alarming point.

CalPERS recently announced that for any future increases to the unfunded liability, the unfunded payment will have to be calculated based on a 20 year, straight-line amortization. This is a positive development, since the more aggressively participants pay down the unfunded liability, the less likely it is that these pension systems will experience a financial collapse if there is a sustained downturn in investment performance. But it begs the question – why, if only increases to the unfunded liability have to be paid down more aggressively, is the unfunded payment nonetheless predicted to double within the next six years?

CalPERS information officer Tara Gallegos, when presented with this question, offered the following answers:

(1) The discount rate (equal to the projected rate-of-return on invested assets) is being lowered from 7.5% to 7.0% per year. But this lowering is being phased in over five years, so it will not impact the 2018 unfunded contribution. Whenever the return-on-investment assumption is lowered, the amount of the unfunded liability goes up. By 2024, the full impact of the lowered discount rate will have been applied, significantly increasing the required unfunded contribution.

(2) Investment returns were lower than the projected rate of return for the years ending 6/30/2015 (2.4%) and 6/30/2016 (0.6%). Lower than projected actual returns also increases the unfunded liability, and hence the amount of the unfunded payment, but this too is being phased-in over five years. Therefore it will not impact the unfunded payment in 2018, but will be fully impacting the unfunded payment by 2024.

(3) The unfunded payment automatically increases by 3% per year to reflect the payroll growth assumption of 3% per year. This alone accounts, over six years, for 20% of the increase to the unfunded payment. The reason for this is because most current unfunded payments are calculated by cities and counties using the so-called “percent of payroll” method, where payments are structured to increase each year. CalPERS is going to require new unfunded payments to not only be on a 20 year payback schedule, but to use a “level payment” structure which prevents negative amortization in the early years of the term. Unfortunately, up to now, cities and counties were permitted to backload their payments on the unfunded liability, and hence each year have built in increases to their unfunded payments.

The real reason the unfunded liability has gotten so big is because nobody wanted to make conservative estimates. Everybody wanted the normal payments to be as small as possible. The public sector unions wanted to minimize how much their members would have to contribute via withholding. CalPERS and the politicians – both heavily influenced by the public sector unions – wanted to sell generous new pension enhancements to voters, and to do that they needed to make the costs appear minimal.

As a result, taxpayers are now paying 100% of an “unfunded contribution” that is already a bigger payment than the normal contribution, and within a few years is destined, best case, to be twice as much as the normal contribution.

Camouflaged by its conceptual intricacy, the cleverly obfuscated, deliberately underrecognized, creatively undervalued, chronically underpaid, belatedly rising unfunded pension liabilities payments are poised to gobble up every extra dime of California’s tax revenue. And that’s not all…

Sitting on the blistering thin skin of a debt bubble, a housing bubble, and a stock market bubble, amid rising global economic uncertainty, just one bursting jiggle will cause pension fund assets to plummet as unfunded liabilities soar.

And when that happens, cities and counties have to pay these new unfunded balances down on honest, 20 year straight-line terms. They’ll be selling the parks and libraries, starving the seniors, releasing the criminals, firing cops and firefighters, and enacting emergency, confiscatory new taxes.

Whatever it takes to feed additional billions into the maw of the pension systems.

Budget surplus? Dream on.

*   *   *

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

RELATED ARTICLES

How to Restore Financial Sustainability to Public Pensions, February 14, 2018

How to Assess Impact of a Market Correction on Pension Payments, February 7, 2018

California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case, January 31, 2018

Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?, January 24, 2018

How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?, January 10, 2018

If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again, December 7, 2017

Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?, October 26, 2017

Coping With the Pension Albatross, October 13, 2017

How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances, September 29, 2017

Pension Reform – The San Jose Model, September 6, 2017

Pension Reform – The San Diego Model, August 23, 2017

These L.A. Police and Firefighters Figured Out How to Double Pay for Not Working

Police carTake a program that lets a public employee earn both a pension and a salary at the same time. Add an extremely generous disability leave and workers’ compensation program that allows public employees to be paid while not working for months or even years on end. What do you get? Massive corruption, obviously.

new report from the Los Angeles Times attempts to quantify the costs and consequences of a program allowing L.A. police and firefighters to collect both salaries and pension returns in the years running up to retirement. But these same employees often spend massive chunks of their final years on the payroll out on medical leave — so they’re costing the city even more money without actually working.

The program is called the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), and it allows public safety employees who have reached the age of 50 to bring home a salary while also earning pension returns during that time. The pension funds (with a guaranteed five percent return rate) are then given to the officer or firefighter as a single payment upon retirement within five years. When you hear stories about police chiefs or fire captains taking home a massive lump sum of money when they retire, this is typically why.

The Times calculated that employees who participated in DROP took more than twice as much sick leave and disability time off than other employees in 2016: 296 hours compared to 123 hours. Over the course of nine years, the city has paid more than $220 million for police and fire personnel who had taken a combined 2.4 million hours off for leaves and sick time.

None of the injuries claimed by cops and firefighters in this program happened as the result of intense field activity. According to the Times, they tended to be the medical consequences of growing old: bad backs, high blood pressure, cancer, and a lot of carpal tunnel syndrome. Thanks to state law (and the influence of public employee unions on lawmaking), these ailments are all presumed to be job-related. Apparently one of the most terrifying, dangerous beats for Los Angeles Police Department officers is its own offices. One guy’s injuries stemmed from him falling off a chair.

The corruption that follows is fairly predictable. The Times includes several stories of public safety employees who spend months or years of their final period on the job out on medical leaves. But they’re hardly bedridden or fighting their way through physical therapy. One couple, a captain and a detective in the LAPD, spent around two years each on medical disability, spending some of their time at their condo in Cabo San Lucas starting a family theater production company. A firefighter who injured his knee just weeks after entering the DROP program shares the same name and hometown as a man who ran a half-marathon two months later, but he and his lawyers would not confirm or deny to the Times whether they were the same person.

Unsurprisingly, this easily abusable program was sold by claiming it would accomplish the opposite of what it actually does. City leaders said the program would keep older police and firefighters on the job to serve and mentor new recruits. And they promoted it to voters by saying it would create no additional costs for the city. This is obviously an absurd claim—the city paid out more than $400,000 in extra pension payments in average in 2016 per DROP employee, and the fire department has to pay overtime to fill the shifts of those who take medical leave.

It’s not a new thing for cities to not consider — or to deliberately ignore — the long-term unintended costs and consequences of pension-related commitments. It’s the very reason why cities (and now even states) face bankruptcy over them. The costs of pension-related commitments are often concealed from residents. The Times notes that Los Angeles city officials haven’t even bothered to analyze the amount of medical leave taken by DROP participants.

Public warnings about problems with the DROP program aren’t even new. Check out this piece from 2011 that warns that the program wasn’t even being audited.

Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, who was in charge when the program was introduced, has acknowledged that DROP was “a mistake” and a “total fraud.” But it persists in Los Angeles as other cities and states across the country have dropped it. Even San Francisco dumped the program because it was too costly, and this was after they implemented rules to try to cut back on abuse.

Los Angeles has a big problem with underfunding its pensions to the tune of billions and expecting much higher returns than is reasonable. This DROP program helps make a bad problem even worse.

This article was originally published by Reason.com

Bonus link: Steven Greenhut goes over the ways public sector unions in California push for costly benefit packages that leave taxpayers overcommitted.

California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case

Pension moneyThe employer contribution to California’s state and local government pension systems will double, from $31 billion in 2018 to $59 billion by 2024. This estimate is based on aggregating official projections of cost increases issued by CalPERS to their participating agencies, and extrapolating those projections show the overall impact on all of California’s 87 government pension systems.

As reported in the CPC analysis “How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?,” each of their participating agencies can now view detailed information on the financial status for each of their local pension plans by accessing the “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports” issued by CalPERS actuaries.

The table below shows, in column one, the sum total of the projections prepared by CalPERS for each of their participating local agencies. As can be seen, local government employers in the CalPERS system are required to contribute $5.3 billion this year. By 2024, that required employer contribution will nearly double, to $10.1 billion.

The middle column in the table extrapolates these projections to the entire CalPERS system, incorporating the state agencies they serve. This is a reasonable extrapolation, since – using data from CalPERS 2016-17 Annual Financial Report – the entire CalPERS system is actually slightly less funded, at 68%, than their local agency plans, at 69%. As can be seen, the entire CalPERS system is estimated to require employer contributions to rise from $13.3 billion this year to $25.3 billion in 2024.

Column three in the table extrapolates this data to incorporate all of California’s state and local government pension systems. Using Census Bureau data, these systems are estimated to have $761 billion in assets. Based on that total, and assuming similar financial profiles for all California’s pension systems – i.e., about 70% funded in aggregate – California’s state and local government employers will pay $31 billion into the 87 various pension systems this year, and by 2024 this payment will rise to $59.1 billion.

Estimated Increase to Employer Pension Contribution
2017-18 compared to 2014-25 ($=B)

Employer Pension Contribution

When assessing the impact of a nearly $30 billion hike in pension contributions between now and 2024, it’s important to note that these projected payments do not include contributions collected from state and local government employees via payroll withholding. Last year, for example, CalPERS collected $12.3 billion from employers – i.e., taxpayers – and supplemented that with $4.2 billion in employee contributions via payroll withholding (ref. CalPERS CAFR, page 31). Why are the employees only paying 25% of the cost for their benefit? Didn’t the PEPRA reform of 2012 put them on track to pay 50% of the cost of their pensions?

To properly answer this, it is necessary to view the projected changes to the employer “normal contribution,” vs. their “unfunded contribution.” The normal contribution is how much money must go into a pension system in any given year. It represents the amount that has to be invested in the present year to eventually fund the additional retirement benefits earned by employees in that same year. According to PEPRA, this so-called normal contribution is the only portion of an employer’s pension fund payment that employees are required to help pay for. And since the normal contribution has never been enough, pension systems have become underfunded – and the money necessary to catch up, the unfunded contribution, falls 100% on the backs of the taxpayers.

If the unfunded contribution was a trivial amount, because pension fund actuaries had made prudent forecasts, this would be a non-issue. But as summarized last week in the report “Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?,” forecasts were not prudent. They were wildly optimistic. This is why, using official projections, CalPERS requires an unfunded contribution this year that is already 21% greater than the normal contribution, and by 2024, CalPERS will required an unfunded contribution that is 53% greater than the normal contribution.

These are best-case projections, since CalPERS and CalSTRS, along with most of California’s major government pension systems are only lowering their long-term projected rate of return assumptions from 7.5% to 7.0%. All of this, this extra $30 billion per year that California’s taxpayers are going to have to cough up by 2024 to feed the pension systems, is assuming that strong investment returns continue indefinitely. If there is a major correction in the stock market, or in real estate, or in bonds, or in all three, then all bets are off.

After a run-up in the value of invested assets that has now lasted for nearly ten years, CalPERS is only 68% funded, and CalSTRS is only 64% funded. These pension systems are already requiring taxpayers to more than double their payments to reduce an unfunded liability that they’ve already racked up, despite realizing unprecedented gains in an overheated market that is ripe for a correction. When that happens, the payments they’ll require to stay afloat could double again.

If you are wondering what is truly driving the state and local governments’ insatiable desire for more tax revenue, look no further.

Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?

Gimmick – a concealed, usually devious aspect or feature of something, as a plan or deal.
– Dictionary.com

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)

In the past week, from Millbrae’s city hall to the inner sanctum of the CalPERS leviathan in Sacramento, defenders of pensions have been active. In particular, they have criticized the recent analysis, published by the California Policy Center, “How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?” It would advance the ongoing debate over pensions to summarize the points of the CPC analysis, how CalPERS and their allies attacked those points, and how those attacks might be challenged.

On January 19th, in a report published online by Chief Investment Officer magazine entitled “CalPERS: Ring’s Flippant Claim of ‘Tricky Accounting Gimmicks’ Is False,” author Christine Giordano interviewed CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan. Tellingly, they did not discuss the substance of the CPC analysis, which specified, using CalPERS’ own data, how much more cities and counties are going to have to pay CalPERS. They focused instead on specific criticisms of CalPERS that followed those payment calculations.

As noted by the title of the report, CalPERS spokesperson Amy Morgan seemed to suggest the characterization of their accounting practices as employing “gimmicks” is not backed up by evidence. Morgan is invited to review the following evidence, after which she may join our readers in deciding whether or not “gimmicks” were employed.

GIMMICK #1  –  THE CORRUPTION OF “ASSET SMOOTHING”

Asset smoothing is a practice whereby pension funds do not overestimate their assets after years of good returns, nor underestimate their assets after years of poor returns. It is a good way to avoid overreacting to market volatility. But in 2001, when the Dow Jones stock index had already been correcting for over a year and the Nasdaq was collapsing, CalPERS abdicated their responsibility to set the rules on smoothing.

When participating agencies in the CalPERS system were contemplating whether or not to follow the lead of the California Highway Patrol (SB 400, 1999) and retroactively increase pension benefits, CalPERS sent projections to these agencies in which a CalPERS actuary presented to elected officials three distinct values for the assets they had invested with CalPERS. Remarkably, that document gave these agency officials the liberty to choose which one they’d like to use – the higher the value they chose for their existing assets, the lower the cost from CalPERS to pay for the benefit enhancements they were contemplating. The usual disclaimers were present, but the mere fact that city officials were given three scenarios is suspect. Obviously these officials would be under pressure to pick the scenario that provided the biggest benefit enhancement for the lowest cost. Read “Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?” for more details including several source documents.

One of the most revealing documents is exemplified by the “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis,” sent to Pacific Grove by CalPERS in July, 2001. Here is an excerpt from that document, showing the choices CalPERS offered Pacific Grove:

The available rate choices are offered under three different Alternatives:
Alternative 1 – No increase in Actuarial Value of Assets
Alternative 2 – Actuarial Value of Assets increased by twice the increase in the Present Value of Benefits due to the amendment, limited to 100% of Market Value of Assets
Alternative 3 – Actuarial Value of Assets increased by twice the increase in the Present Value of Benefits due to the amendment, limited to 110% of Market Value of Assets

To reiterate: CalPERS provided abundant disclaimers. They suggested that given recent “market volatility,” city officials “are strongly encouraged to have in-depth discussions with your CalPERS actuary about the financial consequences of any amendment.”

Now let’s get real: Further on in this same letter, CalPERS provides a breakdown of how much pension benefit enhancements will cost in terms of annual contributions as a percent of payroll under each of these three scenarios:

Alternative 1 – The actuarial value of the assets is not tampered with, the normal cost goes from 4.6% to 25.0%.
Alternative 2 – The actuarial value of the assets is lifted up to market value, the normal cost goes from 4.6% to 19.9%.
Alternative 3 – The actuarial value of assets goes up to 110% of the market value, the normal cost – to implement a massive, retroactive enhancement to pension benefits – goes from 4.6% to 6.2%.

What option would you choose, if you were a city manager whose own pension would be enhanced, or a city council member who has to answer to powerful unions whose members want more generous pension formulas?

The reason CalPERS was able to cram this through, in July 2001 as the market was cratering, was based on their decision to present various asset “smoothing” options to members. Why? Because the smoothing options they’d been using were understating the value of their assets because stock values had exploded in the final years of the 1990s. One can only speculate as to why they did this as late as July 2001 when it was obvious the internet stock bubble had popped. It’s possible CalPERS officials knew several agencies had already lobbied for pension benefit enhancements and the officials were under pressure to leave no agency behind. But to offer local bureaucrats and elected officials a choice of various asset smoothing methods was passing the buck.

Overnight, the CalPERS practice of asset smoothing went from being a prudent accounting guideline to a clever rationalization for disastrous policy decisions. If that’s not a gimmick, I don’t know what is.

GIMMICK #2 – CREATIVE AMORTIZATION OF UNFUNDED LIABILITY

When you talk about “tricky accounting gimmicks,” it’s hard to find one worse than the methods the participating agencies chose to amortize their unfunded liability. To be fair, final responsibility for these decisions usually rests with the cities and counties. But CalPERS should have tried to crack down on these practices a long time ago, and indeed, has recently become more aggressive in doing just that. The basic choice facing agencies with huge unfunded liabilities is whether they want to pay them off aggressively, or come up with creative accounting techniques that push the tough repayments into the future. For example, instead of using a “level payment” repayment calculation, many of them use a “percent of payroll” scheme which allows for graduated payments.

In practice, this means calculating a stream of payments that will pay off the liability in 30 years, but varying the payments so that as projected payroll increases, the payment increases. This allows agencies to make low payments in the early years of the amortization term, which frequently means the unfunded liability isn’t even being reduced in the early years of the amortization term. Then when the payments become burdensome, they refinance the new, larger unfunded liability, to get that unfunded payment down again, in a new tranche, again using the same “level percent of payroll method.”

Anyone who lost their home because a “negative amortization” loan conned them into buying something they couldn’t afford would likely call that type of loan a “gimmick.” Similarly, negative amortization payment schedules on unfunded pension liabilities are also gimmicks. To their credit, CalPERS is now recommending 20-year straight line amortization. Which begs the question, why didn’t they do this all along?

GIMMICK #3 – OVERESTIMATING LONG-TERM RATE-OF-RETURN ASSUMPTIONS

CalPERS spokesperson Morgan correctly claims that CalPERS returns have averaged an 8.4% return over the past 30 years. But Morgan conveniently selects the 30 year timeframe to capture all of the pre-1999 run-up in stocks that began in the Reagan years as interest rates were reduced from inflation-fighting highs of 16% (30 year T-bill in the early 1980s) and American consumers began piling on debt. The 20-year return for CalPERS investments through June 30, 2017 is 6.58%. And these last 20 years of returns are far more relevant, because not quite 20 years ago is when CalPERS began to offer pension benefit enhancements that were sold as affordable when they clearly are not.

But if CalPERS is exceeding its projected rates of return over the past 30 years, why is it only 68% funded (ref. CalPERS 2016-17 CAFR, page 4, “Funding”)? At the end of a prolonged bull market, pension systems should be overfunded. Being 68% funded would not be terribly alarming if we were at the end of a prolonged bear market, but we’re in the opposite place. How can CalPERS possibly claim their actuaries are doing a competent job, if the system is this underfunded at this point in the market cycle? For more on this, read “If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again.”

It is important to emphasize that even if CalPERS can get a 7.0% return on investment – and there is some chance that they can – why did the agency wait until it was 68% funded to announce the drop in its projected returns from 7.5% to 7.0%? The United States economy is in the terminal phases of a more than 60 year long-term credit cycle, and one might argue there is a stronger case to be made that even 7.0% is highly optimistic. But we like optimism, so never mind that for now. Why wait until 2018 to phase in that half-point drop? The actuaries at CalPERS are well aware how sensitive their payment schedules are to even half-point drops in long-term rate-of-return assumptions. Overstating returns understates true cost. Is this an accounting gimmick? Only if you can prove intent. But read on.

GIMMICK #4 – QUIETLY ALLOWING THE UNFUNDED PAYMENT TO DWARF THE “NORMAL” PAYMENT

Every year, each active worker who gets CalPERS benefits vests another year of service. This means that in the future, during their retirement years, they will have an incrementally greater pension benefit in recognition of one more year of work. To pay for that incrementally greater pension benefit in the future, additional money must be invested today. That amount of money is called the “normal” contribution. But when the “normal” contribution isn’t enough, and it hasn’t been for years, the so-called unfunded liability grows. This unfunded liability represents the amount by which invested pension assets need to increase in order to earn enough to eventually pay for all the future pensions that have been promised.

This “unfunded liability” may seem theoretical when a pension system has hundreds of billions in assets. But it has to get paid down, because when there aren’t enough assets in the pension system earning interest, higher contributions are inevitably required from the participating agencies. If the unfunded liability isn’t reduced via catch-up payments, it will grow even if the normal contributions are adequate to cover newly earned benefits.

This reality is corroborated using CalPERS’ own data, which announces that payments required, as a percent of payroll, are set to increase by 50% (in some cases much more) over the next six years in nearly every agency it serves. And where are these projected increases most pronounced? In the unfunded contribution – that payment to reduce the unfunded liability.

And why does the unfunded liability grow in the first place? Because the normal contribution is too low. Why is the normal contribution too low? Could it be because public employees are only required to assist (via payroll withholding) to pay the normal contribution? Could that be the reason that lifespans were underestimated and returns were overestimated? The actuaries obviously got something wrong, because CalPERS is only around 68% funded. You can download the spreadsheet that shows the impact of this on California’s cities and counties here – CalPERS-Actuarial-Report-Data-Cities-and-Counties.xlsx.

In the original CPC report, along with the term “gimmick,” the term “outrageous” was used. If you don’t think sparing the beneficiaries of these pensions any responsibility to share in the costs to pay down the unfunded liability isn’t outrageous, you aren’t paying attention. For example, by 2024, using CalPERS own data, the City of Millbrae will be paying CalPERS a normal contribution of $1.0 million, and an unfunded, or “catch-up” contribution of $5.8 million – nearly six times as much! Is Millbrae just an isolated example? Not really.

Again, using CalPERS’ own data, in 2017-18, their 426 participating cities will contribute $3.1 billion to CalPERS, an amount equal to 32% of their cumulative payroll. In 2024-25, just six years from now, they are estimated to contribute 5.8 billion, 48% of payroll. And the normal vs unfunded contributions? This year in the cities in the CalPERS system, 13% of payroll constitutes the normal contribution and 19% of payroll constitutes the unfunded contribution – for which current employees and retirees have no responsibility to help pay down. In 2024-25? The normal contribution is estimated to increase to 16% of payroll, and the unfunded contribution, rising to $4.0 billion, is estimated to increase to 33% of payroll.

Put another way, today the unfunded “catch-up” pension contribution for California’s cities, cumulatively, is 140% of the normal contribution. By 2024-25, that “catch-up” contribution is going to be 210% of the normal contribution, more than twice as much! And participating individual employees and retirees have zero obligation to help pay it down, even though that payment is now twice as much as the normal payment.

But it’s not the fault of the individual beneficiaries. The responsibility lies with CalPERS and the politicians they reassured for all these years, using gimmicks.

Let’s review these practices: (1) Letting the agencies decide which type of asset smoothing they’d like to employ, (2) permitting the agencies to make minimal payments on the unfunded liability so the liability would actually increase despite the payments, (3) making overly optimistic actuarial assumptions, (4) not taking action sooner so the unfunded payment wouldn’t end up being more than twice as much as the normal payment.

“Gimmicks”? You decide.

THE CASE OF MILLBRAE

On January 22, the San Mateo Daily Journal published an article entitled “Millbrae officials question, criticize pension cost report.”

The paper’s Austin Walsh reports that Millbrae officials told him that using staffing projections to calculate Millbrae’s future pension burden won’t work because Millbrae has fewer employees than most municipalities. Here’s how Millbrae’s Finance Director DeAnna Hilbrants put it: To limit pension costs, Millbrae contracts for positions in police, fire and public works departments. Quote: “Most notably, Hillbrants pointed to Millbrae joining the Central County Fire Department with Burlingame and Hillsborough and contracting with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement.”

What Millbrae officials are saying is that because they contract out much if not most of their personnel costs, their pension contribution is a small percent of their total budget. What they neglect to acknowledge is the fact that the Central County Fire Department and the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office themselves have pension costs, which are passed on to Millbrae to the extent Millbrae uses their services. Millbrae may have made a financially beneficial decision to outsource its public safety requirements. But they did not escape the pension albatross.

CALPERS IS NOT UNIQUE

What has been described here does not just apply to CalPERS. It is the rule, not the exception, for every one of California’s pension systems to engage in the same gimmickry. The consequences for California’s cities, counties, agencies, and system of public education are just beginning to be felt.

How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?

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

When speaking about pension burdens on California’s cities and counties, a perennial question is how much are the costs going to increase? In recent years, California’s biggest pension system, CalPERS, has offered “Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports” that purport to answer that question. Notwithstanding the fact that CalPERS predictive credibility is questionable – i.e., they’ve gotten it wrong before – these reports are quite useful. Before delving into them, it is reasonable to assert that what is presented here, using CalPERS data, are best case scenarios.

In partnership with researchers at the Reason Foundation, the California Policy Center has compiled the data for every agency client of CalPERS, including 427 cities and 36 counties. In this summary, that data has been distilled to present two sets of numbers – payments to CalPERS for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, and officially estimated payments to CalPERS in the 2024-25 fiscal year. In calculating these results, the only assumption we made (apart from the assumptions made by CalPERS), was for estimated payroll costs in 2024. We used a 3% annual growth rate for payroll expenses, the rate most commonly used in official actuarial analyses on this topic.

So how much more will cities and counties have to pay CalPERS between now and 2024? How much more will pensions cost, six years from now?

On the table below, we provide information for the 20 cities that are going to be hit the hardest by pension cost increases. To view this same information for all cities and counties that participate in the CalPERS system, download the spreadsheet “CalPERS Actuarial Report Data – Cities and Counties.”

CalPERS Actuarial Report Data
The Twenty California Cities With the Highest Pension Burden ($=M)

Payments to CalPERS

If you are a local elected official, or if you are an activist, journalist, or anyone else with a keen interest in pensions, these tables merit close scrutiny. Because they not only show costs estimates today, and seven years from now, but they break these costs into two very distinct areas – the so-called “normal” costs, which are how much employers have to pay into the pension fund for current workers who are vesting one more year of future benefits, and the “catch-up” costs, which are what CalPERS charges employers whose pension plan is underfunded.

Take the first city listed, Millbrae. By 2024, we predict Millbrae will have the highest total pension payments of any city in California that belongs to the CalPERS system.

The table presents are two blocks of data – the set of columns on the left show current costs for pensions, and the set of columns on the right show the predicted cost for pensions. In all cases, the cost in millions is shown, along with the cost in terms of percent of total payroll.

Currently, as can be seen on the table, for every dollar it pays active employees in base wages, Millbrae must contribute 59 cents to CalPERS. This does not include payments to CalPERS that Millbrae collects from its employees via withholding. The same data show that, by 2024, for every dollar Millbrae pays active employees in base wages, they will have to contribute 89 cents to CalPERS. Put another way, while Millbrae may expect its payroll costs to increase by $1.4 million, from $6.3 million today to $7.7 million in six years, their payment to CalPERS will increase by $3.1 million, from $3.7 million today to $6.8 million in 2024.

But here’s the rub. Nearly all of this increase to Millbrae’s pension costs are the “catch-up” payments on the city’s unfunded liability. In just six years Millbrae’s payment on its unfunded liability will increase by 99%, from $2.9 million today to $5.8 million in 2024.

Why?

What are the implications?

It is difficult to overstate how outrageous this is. Here’s a list:

1 – Virtually every pension “reform” over the past decade or so has exempted active public employees from helping to pay down the unfunded liability via withholding. Instead, their increased withholding – in some cases supposedly rising to “fifty percent of pension costs” (the PEPRA reforms) – only apply to the normal contribution.

2 – In order to appease the unions who, quite understandably, lobby for the lowest possible employee contributions to pension funds, the “normal cost” is calculated based on financially optimistic projections. The less time an actuary predicts a retiree will live, and the more an actuary predicts investments will earn, the lower the normal contribution.

3 – In order to cajole local elected officials to agree to pension benefit enhancements, the same overly optimistic, misleading projections were provided, duping decision makers into thinking pension contributions would never become a significant burden on cities and counties, and by extension, taxpayers.

4 – Because cities and counties couldn’t afford to pay down the growing unfunded liabilities attached to their pension plans, tricky accounting gimmicks were employed, where minimal catch-up payments were made in the present in exchange for bigger catch-up payments in the future. The closest financial analogy to what they did would be the “negative amortization” mortgages that were popular prior to the housing crash of 2008.

5 – The consequence of this chicanery is that today, as can be seen, catch-up payments on the unfunded liability are typically two to three times greater than the normal contribution. And it’s getting worse. In 2024, Millbrae, for example, will have a catch-up contribution that is nearly six times as much as their normal contribution.

6 – When a normal contribution isn’t enough, and the plan becomes underfunded, the level of underfunding is compounded every year because there isn’t enough money in the fund earning interest. The longer catch-up payments are deferred, the worse the situation gets.

Yet the normal contribution has always been represented as all that should be required for pension plans to remain fully funded. Just how bad it has gotten can be clearly seen on the table.

Take a look at Pacific Grove, fourth on the list of CalPERS cities with the highest pension burden. Pacific Grove is already paying 40 cents to CalPERS for every dollar it pays to its active employees. But in six years, that amount will go up to 75 cents to CalPERS per dollar of salary to active employees. And take a look at where the increase comes from: Their catch-up payment goes from 1.7 million to $4.4 million in just six years.

Why?

Why isn’t Pacific Grove paying more, now, so that it can avoid more years of having too little money in its pension plan, earning interest to properly fund future pensions? The reason is simple: Telling Pacific Grove to go out and find another $2.7 million, right now, is politically unpalatable. In six years, most of the local elected officials in Pacific Grove will be gone. But where is Pacific Grove going to find this kind of money? Where are any of California’s cities and counties going to find this kind of money?

One final point: These pension plans are underfunded after a bull market in stocks has doubled since it’s last peak in June 2007, and has nearly quadrupled since it’s last low in March 2009. When stocks and real estate have been running up in value for eight years, pension plans should not be underfunded. But they are. CalPERS should be overfunded at a time like this, not underfunded. That bodes ill for the financial status of CalPERS if and when stocks and real estate undergo a downward correction.

CalPERS, and the public employee unions that dominate CalPERS, have done a disservice to taxpayers, public agencies, and ultimately, to the individual participants who are counting on them to know what they’re doing. They were too optimistic, and the consequences are just beginning to be felt.

  *   *   *