CalPERS Could Get Hands on Billions in Private-Sector Retirement Funds

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

Instead of addressing the estimated $600 billion in unfunded liabilities in California’s beleaguered public-employee pension system, Democrats in Sacramento have instead decided to “solve” a growing pension crisis in the private sector. In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed a measure that created an investment board and authorized a “feasibility study” of various options for a state-backed private-pension system. That study came out last month, and the legislature is now vetting bills that would put its recommendations into action.

The plans under consideration would mandate participation in the new state-run retirement system for firms with five or more workers, though the workers themselves could opt out. Employers that don’t comply would face fines and other penalties. They would automatically deduct 3 percent to 5 percent of each employee’s earnings (the exact percentage is not yet determined) and deposit the money in an IRA, likely managed by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS)—the same union-controlled government entity that uses its investment muscle to promote liberal causes. Unlike the public-employee pension plans (or even Social Security), however, the envisioned private-pension system is a 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plan. It could not accumulate unfunded liabilities, at least in its current design.

After winning assurances that firms won’t be liable for any losses, the state’s business community has stayed mostly neutral on the scheme. A state senate analysis in support of the bill points to a genuine problem. “Today, due to inadequate retirement savings, nearly 50 percent of middle-income California workers will face living in or near poverty during their senior years,” it says. Social Security is inadequate, and more than 7 million private-sector workers “do not have access to a retirement savings plan through their jobs.”

The obvious rebuttals: workers do have access to such plans in the private sector, and it’s not the government’s job to create such a program. Low-income earners might not be thrilled to see their paychecks decline by 5 percent if the new proposal takes effect. Additionally, employers would face unexpected costs and red tape. The plan would almost certainly lead private employers with their own pension programs to dump their workers onto the new state system. And a government-administered pension system would likely crowd out private companies that manage and sell 401(k) investments.

The state’s public-sector unions backed Brown’s bill. As it turns out, union-friendly politicians hatched the private-sector pension plan a few years ago as a way to deflect attention from the public system’s massive unfunded liabilities. The idea was to give private-sector workers some modest benefit as a way to dampen public support for pension reforms.

Union members’ pensions are enormous. Public-safety officials in California typically receive the “3 percent at 50” formula, which means they (and their spouses) are guaranteed 3 percent of their income multiplied by the number of years worked, available at age 50, which translates to 90 percent of their final years’ pay after 30 years. And that’s before myriad pension-spiking gimmicks. Other public employees often receive formulas that guarantee 80 percent or more of their final pay, which is quite generous. The state’s $100,000 Pension Club is expanding rapidly for precisely that reason. Recently, the San Jose Mercury News reported on Alameda County’s top bureaucrat retiring with a $500,000 annual pension.

Should California go ahead and put the new system into place, and see positive results, expect political pressure to build to expand it into a bigger program—one that could eventually put taxpayers on the hook. Would you trust this crowd to solve any pension crisis?