California Cities Spiking Taxes to Pay Spiking Pension Costs

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

California cities are being forced to spike taxes to pay for spiking public employee pension funding costs.

California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) has just reported that its $344.4 billion defined benefit pension plan, which covers most state and local government employees, has fallen from a $2.9 billion surplus in 2007 to a $138.6 billion deficit as of June 2016. The rate of funding decline accelerated over the prior year by $27.3 billion.

With the pension plan’s funded ratio — equal to the value of plan assets divided by present pension obligations — having fallen to 68 percent, far below what actuaries call the 80 percent minimum for adequate fund, CalPERS is demanding that cities increase payments.

A recent report warned that CalPERS’ poor investment return of just 4.4 percent over the last decade could be further reduced by large and politically motivated “environment, social and governance” investment strategies. These so-called ESG strategies have drastically underperformed other pension plan returns, which explains why CalPERS is “in the midst of a plan to lower its investment return assumptions to 7% from 7.5% by July 1, 2019.”

CalPERS will pay out $21.4 billion in benefits to retirees and beneficiaries in 2017, a 5.5 percent increase from 2016 and more than double the $10.3 billion in 2007. But most of the 1.93 million retirement system members and 1.4 million health care participants who receive administration services from CalPERS are associated with local governments that are directly responsible for paying spiking benefit costs.

At the September CalPERS meeting in Sacramento, eight cities told the pension plan’s trustees that they are experiencing spiking pension funding costs. Representatives from the largest local governments in the Sacramento area claimed that pension funding costs are set to spike by 14 percent next fiscal year.

The city manager of Vallejo, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, said that the city’s police pension funding costs are expected to jump from about 50 percent to 98 percent of payroll over the next decade. Both Lodi and Oroville officials stated that they have had to cut a third of their staff over the last decade.

El Segundo mayor pro tem Drew Boyles told the CalPERS board last month that his city’s CalPERS required pension contribution will be $11 million next year, or about 16 percent of the general fund’s revenue. But the cost in five years is expected to hit $18 million, or 25 percent of general fund revenue. He blamed the increase on funding for police and fire pension costs that are set to spike from 50 percent to 80 percent of payroll.

The California legislature passed SB 703, which will allow Alameda County and its local cities to raise about $148.9 million by exceeding the 2 percent local sales and use tax rate cap. The City Council of El Segundo plans to spike the local sales tax by an additional 3/4-cent to 10.25 percent to generate $9 million to pay for spiking pension funding costs.

All the local government representatives that have been addressing CalPERS’ monthly meetings complain that even after eliminating of services, slashing infrastructure spending, and planning for layoffs, they will still be forced to raise taxes to fund pension costs.

Despite California already being the highest-taxed state in the nation, the California Tax Foundation warned in June that Sacramento politicians were proposing another $16.9 billion in “targeted taxes and fees.” If passed, much of that tsunami of new cash could end up at CalPERS to fund pension shortfalls.

This article was originally published by Breitbart.com/California

Jerry Brown, with nothing to lose, defies unions on pensions

Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes, flickr

Photo courtesy Steve Rhodes, flickr

“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson philosophized in his classic blues song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” a half-century ago.

Kristofferson’s tune would be an apt anthem for Gov. Jerry Brown as he winds down his own half-century-long career in politics – especially so since Kristofferson once campaigned for him.

Unless something very unusual happens, Brown will never face voters again. Therefore, with nothing politically to lose, he has the freedom to do whatever he wants.

Brown emitted a very strong clue to his unfettered status last week when he filed a brief with the state Supreme Court in a case affecting public employee pensions, in effect asking the justices to make it easier for state and local governments to reduce benefits.

Brown is supporting appellate court rulings that upheld two provisions of the modest pension reform bill he and the Legislature enacted in 2012, one ending “pension spiking” and the other repealing the ability of public employees to purchase additional retirement credits called “airtime.”

However, Brown appears to go even further, suggesting that the court set aside, or at least severely modify, the so-called “California rule.”

That rule, based on a 1955 state Supreme Court decision, is an assumption that public employee pension benefits, once granted, can never be modified, even for future work.

It is a bedrock issue for public employee unions and the union-controlled California Public Employees Retirement System, as demonstrated when they successfully pressured bankrupt cities not to reduce pension obligations, even though a federal bankruptcy judge said they could do so.

Not surprisingly, any Democratic politician who questions the rule’s legal validity or financial sustainability risks union wrath.

It explains why former Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) Kamala Harris and her successor, Brown appointee Xavier Becerra, have been reluctant to buck the unions by vigorously defending Brown’s pension reform and why the governor, with nothing to lose, decided to do it himself.

A key phrase in one of the appellate court rulings, reinterpreting the 1955 Supreme Court decision, frames the issue that the Supreme Court must decide.

“While a public employee does have a ‘vested right’ to a pension,” Associate Justice James Richman wrote, “that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension’ – not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension.”

Were the Supreme Court to agree with Brown and uphold the appellate court rulings that seemingly repeal the California rule, it would be a huge setback for the unions – and a black eye for the local unions that opened the legal door by challenging the pension reform’s abolition of much-abused pension spiking and airtime.

A “reasonable pension” ruling would also be an avenue for local governments, which are now struggling to pay fast-rising “contributions” to CalPERS, to reduce the bite by guaranteeing current benefits for work already performed but reducing them for future work.

Conversely, were the Supreme Court to defy Brown and overturn the appellate courts, the California rule would be enshrined, even mild reforms would be thwarted and the state’s unsustainable pension system could either become insolvent itself or force many local governments into bankruptcy.

Obviously, these are big stakes.

This article was originally published by CALmatters

Cities reeling under the burden of growing pension debt

pension-2The California Public Employees’ Retirement System’s union defenders feign shock whenever pension reformers accuse it of “kicking the can down the road” in dealing with the state’s mounting pension debt. It’s like the scene from Casablanca, when Captain Louis Renault is absolutely shocked to find gambling going on in a gambling house.

CalPERS is never going to state the obvious: “We know these massive, underfunded pensions are not sustainable, but we’re going to do everything possible to push the problem into the future and blame everyone else for the problem.” But the pension fund’s board might as well have said as much after two actions it took at last week’s Sacramento meeting.

In one case, it decided to seek a legislative sponsor for a bill that would enable it to shift the blame to local agencies whenever such agencies decide to stop making their payments to the fund and retiree pensions are cut as a result. In the second case, at the urging of cities CalPERS decided to delay a vote on a more actuarially sound means of paying off pension debt – rather than risk a fifth rate hike to local governments, and risk a mutiny among hard-pressed local governments.

Both of these actions maintain the status quo and – you got it – kick the can down the road.

The first action involved the fate of two local agencies that have exited the pension fund because they couldn’t afford to keep making their payments. As California Policy Center previously reported, the tiny Sierra Nevada town of Loyalton in 2013 decided to exit the plan, but then was hammered with a $1.66 million termination fee that it couldn’t possibly afford. The town’s entire annual budget is $1 million and it couldn’t even make its $3,500 month payments to the fund.

Furthermore, the East San Gabriel Valley Human Resources Consortium, known as LA Works, shut its doors in 2014, but was likewise penalized by CalPERS for stopping its payments. The end result: Loyalton’s four retirees have their pension benefits sliced by 60 percent, and LA Works’ retirees lost as much as 63 percent of their pension checks.

In making an example of these small agencies, CalPERS revealed an ugly truth. The pension fund assumes a rate of return of 7 percent to 7.5 percent on its investments. The higher the assumed rate, of course, the less debt on its books. It’s in the union-controlled fund’s interests to assume the highest-possible rates and maintain the status quo – even if that means that taxpayers ultimately will have to pick up any slack.

When agencies decide to leave the fund, however, CalPERS puts them in a Terminated Agency Pool, where CalPERS assumes a rate of return of a measly 2 percent. Upon departure, these agencies can no longer expect future earnings or taxpayers to pick up the shortfall, so the 2 percent rate is the actual risk-free rate that CalPERS expects from its investments.

The legislation the fund seeks, facetiously referred to as the Anti-Loyalton Bill, would “require a terminating agency to notify past and present employees of its intention to terminate,” according to the language approved by the full CalPERS board last Wednesday. Bottom line: CalPERS wants local agencies to provide the bad news to employees and retirees so that they, rather than the massive pension fund, receive the brickbats.

The proposed bill is not a big deal per se, but it’s yet another example of how CalPERS is more interested in hiding – rather than dealing with – its pension debt. Basically, this is a public-relations strategy designed to discourage agencies from leaving the fund. It’s a way to tighten the golden handcuffs and punish agencies that want to exit the fund.

In reality, if 2 percent is the earning rate that CalPERS can safely expect on its long-term investments, then that should be the rate that it assumes for all of its investments. But lowering the assumed earnings to such a realistic number would cause mass panic, as municipalities would need to come up with dramatically increased payments. They already are struggling with their current payments.

Under that scenario, the state’s pension debt would be around $1.3 trillion, according to some estimates – and it would become implausible to push the problem down the road. Even with the current high assumption rates and even after a great year of earnings of 11.2 percent, CalPERS is only funded at a troubling 68 percent. (The California State Teachers’ Retirement System had even better returns last year, but is funded only at 64 percent.)

In its second major action last week, “CalPERS delayed action … on the chief actuary’s proposal to shorten the period for paying off new pension debt from 30 years to 20 years, a cost-cutting reform that would end the current policy not recommended by professional groups,” explained Ed Mendel, on his respected Calpensions blog.

Localities already have faced four major rate increases since 2012. CalPERS assesses the increases to make up for the unfunded liabilities, and recent studies suggest that local governments are slashing public services to come up with the cash. Had CalPERS decided to pay off new debt in a shorter time frame, it would have meant a fifth increase, according to Mendel. He quoted the League of California Cities’ official Dane Hutchings with these words of warning: “The well is running dry.”

It’s a mess. If CalPERS does the right thing, it exacerbates local governments’ current problems. But maintaining the status quo will make them worse down the road. As Mendel explained, under CalPERS’ current payment approach, “the debt continues to grow for the first nine years” with the payment not even covering the interest. “(T)he payments do not begin reducing the original debt until year 18, more than halfway through the period.”

In other words, I have a great 30-year plan for paying off your credit-card debt: You make minimum payments for the next 18 years and then worry about it then. Isn’t that the very definition of kicking the can down the road?

It’s hard to feel too sorry for these struggling cities. Do you remember when they warned about the impending disaster if the state Legislature passed a 1999 bill, promoted by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, that would retroactively raised pensions across the state by 50 percent? Do you remember when city managers angrily resisted union-backed efforts to raise pensions at their city councils? Neither do I.

Unfortunately, their efforts to avoid another rate hike only helps CalPERS do what it likes to do most – remind us that all is well and that the stock market will pay for all the pension promises. It might, but then again it might not. If the market slows, there will be a lot of California officials shocked to find a dead end up ahead.

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

This article was originally published by the California Policy Center

Is California’s Tax Burden “Fair”?

TaxesA recent report by the highly regarded Calmatters.com found that the State of California has been on a “taxing binge” over the past few years, having enacted a whole slew of recent tax increases such as the “gas tax,” the “cap and tax” energy taxation scheme.

The Calmatters.com analysis found that the recent state tax increases “plus a slew of new local government levies and hikes in personal income and taxable retail sales, will raise total tax collections to just under $300 billion, or $50 billion more than they were just two years ago,” according to the report.

“Nearly $200 billion will go to the state and more than $100 billion to schools and local governments,” states the report, which concludes that California likely has the “highest” tax burden in the nation.   (Note:  As good as the original Calmatters.com revenue analysis is, there appears to be several major revenue sources excluded such as “fee” revenue, county revenue sources, and “special district” revenue to name a few.  Based on my rough estimations the total state and local burden is likely closer to $400 billion, possibly more, if “all” revenue sources are included) 

That puts the state’s total estimated tax burden at an estimated $300 billion, which is roughly 11.5% of the state’s economy, based 2016 California Dept. of Finance figures that peg the state’s total economic activity at about $2.6 trillion.

To put this into perspective, the federal budget recently approved by the Senate proposes about $4 trillion in spending, which is about 21% of the nation’s $19 trillion in estimated gross domestic product (GDP), according to figures produced by the Trump Administration.

It must also be noted that these figures fail to adequately account for significant “deficit spending” and “mounting debt” at all levels of government, which have the effect of pushing an increasing tax burden into the future.

Thus, while the federal government is considering a dramatic reduction in tax rates, California government continues on a “taxing binge.”

A new updated report by the California Taxpayers’ Association (Cal-Tax) found that the Democrat-run California Legislature has proposed “more taxes and fees in the first half of the 2017-18 legislative session than in all of 2015 or 2016,” states the report.

The Cal-Tax report found that California Democrat lawmakers have collectively introduced 89 proposals that “cumulatively would cost taxpayers more than $373 billion annually in higher taxes and fees,” states the report.

This “taxing binge” at the state level, has been copied at the local level of government in California in recent years with a record amount of tax and bond measures being proposed in the June and November 2016 elections.

According to a report by CaliforniaCityFinance.com, there was an “unprecedented” 452 tax increases and 184 separate bond measures placed on the November 2016 ballot by California local governments and school districts.  More than 80% of the local tax increases passed and more than 97% of the bond measures passed.

But these overall figures, don’t tell the whole story. The key policy questions that emerge are what are the factors driving this “acceleration” in the California tax burden? And how are California state and local governments spending all this additional tax revenue?

A third question that I believe must be asked yet often is not, is who is paying all these additional state and taxes?

As an expert in state and local finance, I have extensively studied the facts and evidence on all of these questions and drawn some overarching conclusions.

First, the key factor driving the recent “acceleration” in the state’s tax burden is “unchecked” and “unsustainable” increases in the “cost of government” in California at both the state and local levels.

The state’s “public employee pension crisis” is the biggest single driver of the “cost of government,” combined with significant baseline expenditure increases in current and retired public employee health care costs.

Given that labor costs typically compose more than 80% of public sector budgets, and more than 90% of the cost increases, the “cost of government” cannot be addressed without significant mitigation of public employee compensation cost increases.

Second, how are state and local governments spending this additional tax revenue?  This issue is connected to the first question and touches on perhaps one of the most disturbing trends in California public finance—this money is primarily being squandered on “unsustainable” increases in the cost of government, not on improving government services and infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the complex nature of public budgets makes it very easy to hide the nature and extent of cost increases.  But my overall conclusion is simple, the “driving forces” behind both the underlying “need” for the tax increase as well as the actual expenditures themselves are caused primarily by “unsustainable” increases in public employee compensation costs.

In short, baseline public employee compensation costs are rising at rates that far exceed average revenue growth for public agencies.  Based on my review of local and state budgets, during economic expansions stand and local revenue growth averages about 4-7% per year, compared to increases in public employee compensation costs that average between 10-25% of total agency costs.

Thirdly, who pays this increasing state and local tax burden?  This is also a complex question, but there is no question that the heaviest tax burden falls on average Californians and small businesses, particularly the poor.

A 2015 report by the California budget project, found that California’s lowest-income families pay the largest share of their income in state and local taxes, with the bottom 1/5 of all taxpayers paying 10.5% of their income in taxes.

Incidentally, these same low-income and poor families are paying nearly 70% of their income in housing costs, according to the California Legislative Analyst.

That is why the recent tax increases approved by the California Democrat Legislature are so “offensive” because they take a bad problem and make it even worse.

The $5-6 billion increase in the “gas tax” and vehicle fees is highly regressive, and so is the “cap and tax” scheme which creates a new energy tax burden that will be the heaviest on poorer individuals and families, along with small businesses.

As for the whole slew of local taxes, those also tend to fall disproportionately on “average” taxpayers, small businesses, and homeowners, as opposed to special interests who can afford to mount major opposition campaigns, thereby preventing such proposals in the first place.

Ironically, there continues to be calls for “tax reform” in California, but if you look behind these “tax and spend” efforts such as the “Make it Fair Campaign,” they all propose billions in additional taxes, particularly on individuals and small businesses.

But to truly make the state’s tax system “more fair,” that would require limiting future tax increases and lowering taxes on “average” Californians, homeowners, and small businesses.

Unfortunately, there are very few “well heeled” interest groups in Sacramento who are willing to champion that cause.

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 article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

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