Dems want to raise property taxes to fund government pensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

How pension costs reduce government services

A think tank at Stanford University, known for bringing investment earnings forecasts into the public pension debate in California, issued a new study last week that looks at how rising pension costs are reducing government services.

The study found that while pension costs in a large sample of retirement systems increased an average of 400 percent during the last 15 years, the operating expenditures of the government employers only grew 46 percent.

Because of the “crowd out” from soaring pension costs, money for services have been reduced, including some “traditionally regarded part of government’s core mission,” said the study by Joe Nation of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

“As pension funding amounts have increased, governments have reduced social, welfare and educational services, as well as ‘softer’ services, including libraries, recreation, and community services,” said the study. “In some cases, governments have reduced total salaries paid, which likely includes personnel reductions.”

The Stanford institute drew national attention in 2010 when graduate students calculated state pension debt was much larger than reported. To discount future pension debt, they used earnings forecasts for “risk-free” bond rates, rather than stock-based investment portfolios.

Nation’s study uses both the actuarial assumptions baseline of the retirement systems and a bond-based alternative to project that pension costs, even without a big stock-market drop, will continue to crowd out funding for government services during the next decade.

“Employer contributions are projected to rise an additional 76% on average from 2017-18 to 2029-30 in the baseline projection and 117%, i.e., more than double, in the alternative projection,” said the study.

There have not been many attempts to show how rising pension costs reduce services. A report last year from a citizens committee appointed by Sonoma County supervisors found $269 million in “excess costs” in the county retirement system between 2006 and 2015.

With $10 million a year, said the committee, Sonoma County could fund 44 more deputy sheriffs or pay for 40 miles of road improvement. Some Sonoma officials said concern about pension costs played a role in voter rejection of a 1/4-cent sales tax for transportation.

A Los Angeles Times story last month said a big part of a tuition increase at the University of California is going for increasingly generous pensions, including $357,000 a year for a former president, Mark Yudof, who worked for UC only seven years.

David Crane, a Stanford lecturer ousted from the CalSTRS board a decade ago for questioning overly optimistic earnings forecasts, showed in April and July reports how rising retirement costs are “shortchanging students and teachers” despite large school revenue gains.

The new Stanford institute study has 14 separate case studies: the state, six local governments in CalPERS including formerly bankrupt Vallejo and Stockton, the independent Los Angeles system, three county systems, and three school districts in CalSTRS.

The study said their “pension contributions now consume on average 11.4% of all operating expenditures, more than three times their 3.9% share in 2002-03,” and by 2029-30 will consume 14 percent under the baseline, 17.5 percent under the alternative.

In contrast, a survey of the public retirement systems done for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission found pension contributions had been stable for more than a decade prior to the report in January 2008:

“Even though State pension contributions have risen in the past decade, they have remained at a relatively stable 3.5% to 4% of total General Fund revenues from the mid-1990s to present. The exception is 1999 to 2002 when contributions were significantly lowered.”

Table - stanford2

The Stanford institute’s case study of state spending on CalPERS and CalSTRS said $6 billion was shifted from other expenditures to pensions this fiscal year, much of the money apparently coming from social services and higher education.

The calculation was based on the growing cost of pensions during the last 15 years that, despite an expanding state budget, took 2.1 percent of operating expenditures in 2002-03 and an estimated 7.1 percent of operating expenditures this fiscal year.

The pension share of state operating expenditures in the baseline projection reaches 10.1 percent in 2029-30 and 11.4 percent in the alternative, crowding out an additional $5.2 billion or $7.4 billion.

“This expansion in pension funding requirements could be accommodated with additional 27% reductions in DSS and Higher Education expenditures (or reductions in other agencies and/or departments), or with slightly more than 4% across-the-board budget reductions,” said the study.

In an unrelated coincidence of numbers, the state got a $6 billion low-interest loan from its large cash-flow investment fund this year to double its annual payment to CalPERS, saving an estimated $11 billion over the next two decades by more quickly paying down debt.

The big loan, criticized by some who wanted more study, was bolstered late last month by a state Finance department analysis of the cash management, repayment plan, interest rates, investment earnings, and expected savings.

Annual state payments to CalPERS are expected to average about 2.2 percentage points less over the next two decades. Peak miscellaneous rates would drop from 38.4 percent of pay to 35.7 percent, peak Highway Patrol rates from 69 percent of pay to 63.9 percent.

“It is expected that any deviation from assumed CalPERS returns, or projected U.S. Treasury rates, will still result in significant net savings, and that any issues with funds’ ability to repay its share of the loan can be absorbed by the repayment schedule and effectively resolved,” said the Finance analysis given to the Legislature.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, like many public pensions, has not recovered from huge investment losses in the financial crisis a decade ago. The CalPERS state plans only have 65 percent of the projected assets needed to pay future pensions.

CalPERS estimates the $6 billion extra payment will increase the funding level of the state plans by 3 percentage points. The Finance analysis also said the extra payment would “partially buy down the impact” of a lower CalPERS discount rate.

Last December CalPERS lowered the investment earnings forecast used to discount future pension costs from 7.5 percent to 7 percent, triggering the fourth employer rate increase since 2012.

The annual valuations CalPERS gave local governments this fall reflect a drop of the discount rate from 7.5 percent to 7.35 percent next fiscal year, the first step in a three-year phase in.

number of cities unsuccessfully urged the CalPERS board last month to analyze two ways to cut pension costs: suspend cost-of-living adjustments and give current workers lower pensions for future work.

The Oroville finance director, Ruth Wright, told the CalPERS board: “We have been saying the bankruptcy word.” Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter created a stir by using the “bankruptcy word” at a city council meeting on Sept. 26 while talking about rising salaries and pension costs.

“How do we get this under control? How do we keep this city sustainable so we don’t have to file for bankruptcy?” Gunter asked.

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 Calpensions.com.

CA Should Raise Teacher Pay By Reducing Unfunded Retirement Liabilities

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

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

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

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

Reducing unfunded obligations would free up billions for current teachers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Raising property taxes for public pensions

PensionsSome California citizens who voted for Proposition 13 almost four decades ago may have forgotten that the drafters were in fact concerned about government spending as well as tax relief. A few still contend that taxpayer groups such as Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association should focus only on protecting homeowners against rising property taxes and avoid issues like the costs of regulation, environmental policies or the cost of public employee pensions. But fortunately, most astute taxpayers understand that their tax burden is inextricably related to government spending and that there are tremendous risks in failing to engage on government policies that drive up public costs.

One Illinois town has learned that the hard way. The city of Harvey has been ordered by a state appellate court to approve a property tax levy specifically for its firefighters’ pension. That court order, however, may be difficult to enforce given that Harvey already has effective tax rates of 5.7 percent for residential and 14.3 percent for commercial properties. (Under Proposition 13, the maximum tax rate for all real property is 1 percent).

As stunning as this decision may be, residents of Illinois better prepare themselves because Harvey won’t be the last. Many of Illinois’ 600-plus local police and firefighter pensions are similarly underfunded which may explain massive flight out of the state by its taxpaying citizens.

The real question for California taxpayers is whether what is going on in Illinois could happen here in California. More specifically, could a California court order a city, county or special district to raise property taxes to cover unfunded public employee pension obligations? It’s possible, but it would be more difficult for those who seek such a move. First, Proposition 13’s one percent rate limit is in the constitution, so a state court would have to find — which it could — that the pension obligations were guaranteed under the United States Constitution. That is not an inconceivable outcome. Indeed, it is possible that a federal court might reach that conclusion more easily.

That a federal court might order a local property tax increase is not without precedence. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal judges may order local governments to increase taxes to remedy constitutional violations such as school segregation. The court took an expansive view of judicial power to actively manage institutions and activities usually within the power of states and localities.

If property owners need a reason to watch the entire controversy over public employee compensation, especially pension benefits, this is it. Don’t assume what happened in Harvey, Illinois couldn’t happen here.

Jon Coupal is the president of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

This article was originally published by the OC Register

Pensions: The high cost of ‘socially responsible’ investment policy

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

SACRAMENTO – A newly released report from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System confirms that, fulfilling the Legislature’s directive to divest from coal-related investments, the pension fund has now largely exited from coal stocks. But as news reports this week suggest, this “socially responsible” investment policy has come at a price, as coal stocks soar under the Trump administration’s fossil-fuel-oriented energy policy.

The Public Divestiture of Thermal Coal Companies Act of 2015 required CalPERS to “identify, engage and potentially divest from companies meeting the definition of ‘thermal coal companies.’” The pension fund was directed to do so “consistent with its fiduciary responsibilities,” providing some wiggle room for the fund, whose primary duty is to maximize investment returns to make good on its public-employee pension obligations.

Nevertheless, CalPERS promptly identified two dozen publicly traded companies that generate at least 50 percent of their revenue from mining thermal coal, as required by the law. As the recent report explains, three companies adapted their business model and redirected their investments toward clean energy. As such, they were exempt from divestment. CalPERS had no holding in eight other companies identified under the act.

But 14 companies “failed to indicate applicable business plan adaptations, or failed to respond to CalPERS engagement efforts and were subject to divestment,” according to the report. As the Sacramento Bee explained, “stocks for 13 of the 14 companies are worth more than they were a year ago when the pension fund was divesting from the industry.” The shares of one of those firms were trading at 15 times their April 2016 levels.

There’s little question that the act was designed to achieve a social goal, rather than one related to increasing CalPERS’ investment returns. “Coal combustion for energy generation is the single leading cause of the pollution that causes global climate change,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, as quoted in the Senate bill analysis. He added that coal is “a leading cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution” and that “most U.S. coal plants have not installed these technologies.”

CalPERS’ investment staff tends to oppose socially oriented investments, but the CalPERS board has the final say. The issue was debated at the CalPERS Board of Administration meeting in May. The Sacramento Bee reported on union officials who criticized the policy at the board meeting. “We cannot afford to lose funding for law enforcement officers in exchange for a socially responsible investment policy,” said Jim Auck, treasurer of the Corona Police Officers Association.

This isn’t the first time that there’s been tension between the fund’s politically oriented investment goals and its desire to increase investment returns. At a board meeting last year, CalPERS investment officials argued for an end to a 16-year ban on tobacco-related investments made by the system’s own investment officers. (Tobacco investments by outside firms were still allowed.) Because tobacco stocks had rebounded since 2000, news reports estimated that the pension fund had lost about $3 billion because of that decision. The fund’s total investments are valued at more than $300 billion.

Instead of following the investment team’s advice, the CalPERS board continued to ban tobacco investments and also decided to divest about $547 million in tobacco-related investments handled by outside firms. That decision also was based on social goals. Advocates for tobacco divestment argued that CalPERS ought not invest in firms that sell deadly products.

At the time, the tobacco-divestment decision was particularly controversial because CalPERS faced investment returns of a measly 0.61 percent. Now, with CalPERS’ latest returns showing a robust 11.2 percent gain, it makes continuing with the coal divestment plan – and other socially oriented investment strategies – an easier option to pursue.

Regarding coal, CalPERS isn’t the only state agency to pursue divestment. Last summer, California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones launched his Climate Risk Carbon Initiative, which called for any insurance companies that do business in California to divest “voluntarily” from most of their thermal-coal investments. The state vowed to publicize the names of companies that didn’t comply and ramped up mandatory reporting requirements.

Insurance commissioners regulate insurers to assure they have the resources to pay any claims. Yet the department’s divestment request clearly had a social (and some say political) goal. Jones justified it by arguing that such investments put the companies at risk. “As utilities decrease their use of coal and other carbon fuel sources … investments in coal and the carbon economy run the risk of becoming a stranded asset of diminishing value,” he said in a statement.

But critics of the policy, including a 2016 study by this writer, note that insurers are invested in extremely conservative positions, mostly in fixed-income bonds, and that even the insurer with the largest percentage of coal-related investments (TIAA-CREF) had only 1.76 percent of its total assets in such holdings. Furthermore, the value of the stocks already reflects the well-known uncertainties that the insurance commissioner raised. Jones’ office argued, in response, that “since 2011, coal prices, cash flows, and company valuations have fallen sharply thus adversely affecting and bankrupting numerous coal companies.”

The broad question, especially for CalPERS, is the one raised by the union officials at the recent board meeting: Are the political and social gains of divesting from these industries worth the costs in investment returns?

Chief investment officers “invest for value and don’t appreciate being hamstrung by legislators who don’t know how to manage a diversified portfolio,” said Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, who voted against Sen. de Leon’s divestment act. “I think I’m the only legislator who managed a $7 billion portfolio. And the studies I’ve seen have shown that social investing has produced lower returns.”

Despite the recent good-news returns, CalPERS has an enormous amount of unfunded liabilities – the shortfall in assets to make good on all the long-term pension promises made to government employees. The system is only funded at around 68 percent. This should be of concern not only to the agency, the Legislature and public employees who depend on a CalPERS retirement, but to California taxpayers. Ultimately, they are the ones who will pay for any pension shortfalls.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

The article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

California’s Pension Crisis in a Nutshell

PensionsThe town of Loyalton, CA is a short scenic drive north of Truckee and, seemingly, a world away from the financial strain facing CalPERS. It is the equivalent of a gnat on an elephant’s back.

Yet, the town’s pension woes provide insight to the overwhelming crisis facing other – and much larger – municipalities whose employees are participants in CalPERS.

An article in the Los Angeles Times reads like a case study in the dangers of unsustainable promises.

In summary, the last of the town’s covered employees retired; there are four retirees with a vested full retirement benefit. Loyalton’s City Council elected to pull out of CalPERS when the fourth one retired.

Calpers smacked the town with a $1.7M termination fee.

Why?

Because the long-term liability associated with future pension benefits was grossly underfunded. The article does not say that, but it is the primary underlying reason.  You see, if the town’s plan had been properly funded, there would have been sufficient assets to cover the four until the day they died, plus spousal benefits to the extent they existed.

Loyalton does not have anywhere close to that kind of money lying around, so pensions will be slashed by 60%.

The retirees are screaming foul. After all, they were promised a sum-certain benefit for life.

To be fair, the employees, council and mayor should have done the math a long time ago. The town itself was not managed well, but you can say that about many municipalities, including Los Angeles. (L.A. does not participate in CalPERS. Nevertheless, it faces the same fundamental problem within its own retirement plans.)

What CalPERS is doing is financially and technically justifiable, but it demonstrates just how deluded many beneficiaries have become. The promise of guaranteed pensions for life is only as good as the assets backing them.

Loyalton could have weathered the crisis had it stayed in CalPERS. What that points out, though, is the weakness in the assumptions underlying the entire retirement fund. It depends too heavily on contributions from current employees to cover past service. It is a Ponzi scheme, in that respect.

But it does not have to be. A defined benefit plan can work … if contribution levels are sufficient. I accounted for several small defined benefit plans back in the day when I was just out of college. We used conservative assumptions and were straightforward in our projections to the employers and employees.

Employees throughout the state need to contribute more of their own money to close the funding gap. It is unfair to charge the taxpayers for the state’s years of over-promising more than it could afford.

The good news is that higher contributions can be spread over many years. The pain would be no worse than felt by private sector employees who do the math and decide to increase their 401-K payroll deductions.

If employees want a guaranteed benefit, they must pay a premium for the protection. That’s no different than when we choose lower-yielding investments in return for less risk.

It is also essential to educate the participants in CalPERS about what a promise really is.

No sense in trying to teach that to our legislators, though.  They have been in bed with the public union leaders for way too long.

Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association. He blogs at Village to Village and contributes to CityWatch. The views presented are those of Mr. Hatfield and his alone and do not represent the opinions of Valley Village Homeowners Association or CityWatch. 

This article was originally published by CityWatchLA.com

LADWP retirees bring in bigger pensions than city, county workers, audit says

As reported by the L.A. Daily News:

Workers who retire from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power enjoy a higher monthly pension, on average, than retired public employees from the city and county, according to an audit released this week by City Controller Ron Galperin.

LADWP retirees received an average monthly pension payment of $5,212 in the fiscal year ending July 1, 2015, the audit said.

That figure is higher than the $4,023 average monthly payment for other city retirees and the $3,881 pension amount per month for retired county workers, amounts that are used as comparisons in the audit performed by contractor, Aon Hewitt Investment Consulting.

But while the LADWP’s pension benefits on average surpass those of other local government agencies, they are still slightly lower than the pension payments received by police and firefighters. The average monthly pension is just shy of the $5,309 monthly payments for Los Angeles police and fire department employees, according to the audit. …

Click here to read the full story

California Cuts Services, Staff to Pay Pension Costs

POLICY – Across California, many local governments have raised taxes while cutting services. Local officials desperate for union support have made irresponsible deals with public employee unions, creating staggering employee costs. Taxpayer money meant to provide essential services to the least well-off instead goes directly to higher salaries and benefits.

In Santa Barbara County, the 2017-2018 budget calls for laying off nearly 70 employees while dipping into reserve funds. The biggest cuts are to the Department of Social Services, which works to aid low-income families and senior citizens. Meanwhile, $546 million of needed infrastructure improvements go unfunded as Santa Barbara County struggles to pay off $700 million in unfunded pension liabilities. County officials estimate that increasing pension costs may cause hundreds of future layoffs.

Unfortunately, Santa Barbara County is far from alone. Tuolumne County is issuing layoffs in the face of rising labor and pension costs from previous agreements. In Kern County, a budget shortfall spurred by increased pension costs has led to public safety layoffs, teacher shortages, budget cuts, and the elimination of the Parks and Recreation department, even as Kern County’s unfunded pension liability surpasses $2 billion. In the Santa Ana Unified School District, nearly 300 teachers have been laid off after years of receiving pay raises that made them unaffordable, including a 10% raise in 2015.

In Riverside County, non-union county employees took the blow for the county’s irresponsible pension deals, as all but one of the 32 employees the county laid off this June were non-union members. This came after contract negotiations granted union employees hundreds of millions of dollars in raises. The Riverside County DA said these raises caused public safety cuts. In addition, Riverside County imposed an extra 1% sales tax to pay for these benefits. Across California, citizens suffer as local governments give away their money while cutting their services.

Government projections continually underestimate pension costs. According to a new study by the Hoover Institution, pension liabilities are understated by trillions of dollars. This happens because governments assume unrealistic rates of return on pension investments. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the agency managing pension and health benefits for most California employees, will assume a rate of return of 7% starting in 2020 (the current assumption is 7.5%), however, last year, CalPERS earned a return of 0.6%. California’s defined benefit system for public employees means that governments must pay their employees a fixed amount regardless of how pension plans perform. Rosy estimates for future pension performance make government obligations look smaller than they are.

Unrealistic projections also allow government officials to award big pensions, as officials argue that the big future returns they have assumed can pay off the costs. When reality hits and pension returns fall short, taxpayers are left footing the bill. This year, Californians paid $5.4 billion because of this baseless confidence, more than the state spent on environmental protection, drought response, and fighting wildfires combined. Short-sighted government optimism has real consequences for citizens forced to live in the real world.

The future of government finance throughout California looks bleak due to government mismanagement of taxpayer funds. Local representatives grant unions generous terms, and those unions in turn donate to re-election campaigns. This vicious cycle costs Californians essential services. Agreements between government officials and union bosses allies harm taxpayers, service beneficiaries and even some union workers, who find their representatives complicit in laying them off.

Government does not exist to give taxpayer money to the politically connected. Because of their twisted incentives, California’s elected officials are directly responsible for the state having the highest poverty rate in the country, and the second most unfree economy. Instead of working to fix California’s challenges, many local officials create them by refusing to serve their constituents and instead forcing citizens serve the government. If public servants are serious about real improvements, they need to push for changes to the public pension system and for limitations in every interaction between lawmakers and public employee unions.

David Schwartzman is a Policy Research Fellow at the California Policy Center.  He is a rising senior studying economics, mathematics, and finance at Hillsdale College.

This article was originally published by CityWatchLA.com

Union Continues Misinformation Campaign on Pension Crisis

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

Just as the moment appeared that the media attention devoted to California’s pension crisis had begun to reach a fever pitch regarding the state’s pension crisis, a key state public employee union doubled down on its misinformation campaign regarding the state’s pension crisis.

Yvonne Walker, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1000, wrote a recent op-ed for the Sacramento Bee titled “Let’s not be as shortsighted on pensions as on drought.”

The title of the piece actually makes it seem like it might hint at a reality check on pensions, but if you read the piece there is scarcely a single point that cannot be refuted with substantial evidence and facts.

The piece begins by drawing a flawed parallel to the state’s drought, which recently ended due to record rainfall.

The piece states that a “group of self-styled experts has grabbed the media megaphone with doomsday predictions about California’s public worker pension funds.  They are repeating the same mistake, taking a short snapshot and concluding that it will extend forever,” state’s the Bee op-ed.

So the position the SEIU 1000 president is taking is that there will somehow be some great market correction between now and 2047, similar to the record rainfall this past winter, that will magically wipe away the $160 billion in unfunded liabilities that have accrued at the California State Public Employees’ Retirement Fund (CalPERS) since 2000.

This comparison may sound intriguing to Joe Public, or some state workers looking for some consolation in the increasingly abysmal prospects that their full pension will be there when they retire.  But it simply does not match with the facts and evidence, of which few are presented to back up her arguments.

First off, this is about math, pure and simple.  And for any expert, apart from the politically motivated state-funded UC Berkeley study cited in the piece, who has taken an honest look at the figures—things are not good.

In short, no financial expert can present any real evidence showing that CalPERS can grow its way back from its current 63% funded ratio to anywhere close to 100%.

Perhaps the best source is CalPERS own actuaries, Wilshire Associates, which has stated that they project the fund to achieve an average return of 6.1% over the next several years—nearly a whole percentage point below their current 7% assumed rate of return that doesn’t fully kick in until three years from now.

David G. Crane, a Democrat who was Governor Schwarzenegger’s’ point person on pension reform, is a former investment banker and wizard with the actual numbers.

Crane continues to publish a series of financial analyses of CalPER’s own figures, which prove that the fund is insolvent absent major policy changes and major changes in the assumed rates of return.

And if you don’t trust those folks, how about take a listen to a growing list of local administrators and public officials in local government who say that CalPERS recent rate increases are eating local government budgets alive and likely to push many to the brink of bankruptcy in the coming years.

Here is a great recent piece by a Beverly Hills City Councilman called “Pension Pomperipossa: Destroying California’s Cities,” while many more local and state accounts can be found on the Pension Tsunami website.

I doubt the Los Angeles Times, KQED, CALmatters.com, and famed editorial writer Dan Walters would devote a whole series to the state’s pension crisis if it were not for real.  These folks are not a group of “self-styled experts,” quite the contrary, these are the real experts—some of the best analysts in California politics.

Furthermore, even if CalPERS gets a 20% return on their portfolio in 2018, which is not even possible, they would still only recoup a fraction of their unfunded liabilities.

CalPERS and the state’s insolvent pension system is not subject to natural weather conditions, it’s a man-made disaster, resulting from years of mismanagement and making assumptions that deny the most basic of prudent actuarial and investment principals.

Unfortunately, SEIU President Walker and the rest of her union counterparts refuse to acknowledge what is so clear to everyone else—absent major policy changes CalPERS will go belly up and likely take a number of localities and public retirees down with it in the form of bankruptcy and lost government pensions.

That’s the reality.  And while union officials may believe they are gaining some kind of twisted political leverage or temporary windfall for their members by denying this reality, it will not change the underlying math, which is so very clear to everyone else.  In fact, the numbers are staggering, and undeniable to someone like me, and the many other experts listed above.

The state’s public employee unions are supposedly advocates for government and government employees, but by denying the most basic realities about the state’s pension crisis they are demonstrating that they care far more about their own self-interests than about a truly thriving public sector, and even the basic well-being of their own members.

After all, how will the state afford to pay for any current government programs if it is spending 4/5 of all new tax dollars on retired government employees?  I’m still not quite sure exactly how that policy result is defined as “progress.”

David Kersten is the president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy—a Bay Area-based public policy think tank and consulting organization. Kersten is also an adjunct professor of public budgeting at the University of San Francisco. 

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Ex-Government Workers in California Make More Than Those Still Working in the Private Sector

Last week the California Policy Center released a new study that compared the average full-career government pension to the average annual earnings of a full-time private sector worker. Not surprisingly, at least for anyone paying attention, ex-government workers make 26 percent more than people make in the private sector who are still working. The average government pension after 30 years work? $68,673. The average private sector pay? $54,326.

Pension moneyHow is it possible to pay government workers more when they’re retired than the rest of us make while we work? How can we afford this? When you try to answer this question, you begin to see just how misguided the left in California has gotten – at least the “left” as it is conventionally understood.

Because the left wants everything. And the government unions who control the “left” in California, along with the state Legislature and nearly every major city and county, promise everything. If any politician or public speaker stands up to them, they help organize demonstrations by left-wing activists, where, when they aren’t breaking windows and spraying innocent people with mace, they chant silly little phrases.

For example, they want to turn California into a “sanctuary” and invite millions of destitute immigrants to join the millions who are already here. But at the same time, they want to block development of land, energy, water and transportation assets, because that might harm the earth.

Please come on in, we welcome millions more
but building homes is sinful, so go sleep on the floor

The reason leftists are dupes is because despite all their resentment of “privilege,” they ignore the agenda of the most privileged special interest that has ever existed, which are the government unions in the state of California. They’re so busy insisting that California’s government invite the entire world’s destitute population – while simultaneously doing nothing to make room for them – that they’ve failed to realize that it is the government unions who are the only winners in this miserable equation.

Neglect the roads, let dams give way
but increase public servant pay

Every era has had its dupes, but the reason California’s leftists are the biggest dupes in the history of the world is because they haven’t figured out that their supposed friends are actually sleeping with the enemy. The left demonizes the wealthy, they demonize the banks, they demonize “Wall Street,” but fail to realize that their own state government – leftist to the core – is partnering with these corrupt financial special interests.

Who do they think invests nearly $800 billion of pension fund assets, collecting billions in fees? Who do they think lends billions to cash-strapped state and local governments that have gone broke paying government workers twice what ordinary citizens make? Who do you think benefits when restrictions on land and energy development cause asset bubbles at the same time as they drive the cost of living through the roof?

We hate wealth, we hate greed
but we are Wall Street’s friend in need

or

Invest your savings in the market, and lose it in the crash
but we’ll increase your taxes, so pension funds have cash

No expose of California’s left is complete without mentioning how they have corrupted environmentalism. In a practical world, we would strike a reasonable balance between development and preservation, so prosperity might lift billions out of poverty, empower women who actually need empowerment, and stabilize those burgeoning populations who eye the developed nations with understandable envy. Instead, California’s leftist oligarchs, supported by millions of leftist dupes, have decided to encourage immigration while actually curtailing our supplies of energy, water and land.

If this were all based on pure and naive idealism, one might forgive it. But these Malthusian, misanthropic masochists have embraced rationing as a substitute for development, abetted by surveillance systems that would make George Orwell blush, to make sure nobody uses a single kilowatt-hour or gallon of water more than they’re allotted. Want to plant a hedge, a lawn, or a “water guzzling” tree? Do you love to nurture living things on a lot bigger than a postage stamp? Not in California. Meanwhile, wealthy Silicon Valley “entrepreneurs” develop the mandatory sensors that will let your appliances monitor your behavior, at the same time as wealthy corporate interests plant vast new orchards of thirsty nut trees on the arid western acreage of the Central Valley.

Take short showers, pay excessive fees
so corporations can plant Walnut trees

California’s leftists aren’t helping themselves, the rest of humanity or the earth. They are dupes of the oligarchy. They have been duped into ignoring a profound, counter-intuitive, and very nonpartisan political reality: Government unions and wealthy elites are working together to undermine our liberty and our prosperity. At best, California’s leftists are blinded by their ideals and biases. At worst, they are seditious traitors to the people and the culture that gave them the time and the freedom to crowd our public spaces with their vandalism and their vacuous rhymes.

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