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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources for California’s Pension Reformers
– California Policy Center

Will Local Officials Finally Get the Tools They Need to Prevent Pension Tsunami?

pensionSACRAMENTO – A decision by four Marin County public-employee associations to appeal a pension-related case to the California Supreme Court could ultimately determine whether localities have the tools needed to rein in escalating pension debt. At issue is how far officials can go to reduce some benefits for current employees after a state appeals court has chipped away at a legal “rule” long favored by the state’s unions.

In August, a California appeals court ruled against the Marin County Employees’ Association in its case challenging a 2012 state law reining in pension-spiking abuses – i.e., those various end-of-career enhancements (unused leave, bonuses, etc.) that public employees use to gin up their final salary and their lifetime retirement pay.

One of the few areas of widespread agreement at the Capitol on public-employee pensions involves spiking. Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013, known as PEPRA, to reduce escalating pension liabilities. Most of its provisions applied to new hires only. The governor also signed related legislation, Assembly Bill 187. Its goal was to “exclude from the definition of compensation earnable any compensation determined … to have been paid to enhance a member’s retirement benefit.”

This limitation on pension spiking was implemented by the Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association to help the county reduce its pension debt. As the court explained, “Reaction to the change in policy was almost immediate.” Five public-employee associations filed suit, claiming that a ban on these spiking conditions reduced promised levels of pay to their members. They argued this was an impairment of their “vested rights.” Vesting confers ownership rights.

Even though the dollars at issue are relatively minimal, the case has become a major flashpoint. California courts have long abided by something known as the “California Rule.” It’s not a law or even a rule, actually. It refers to a series of court rulings concluding that once a pension benefit is granted to public employees by a legislative body (board of supervisors, city council, state legislature), it can never be reduced – even going forward.

In the private sector, for instance, courts allow employers to reduce pension benefits, starting tomorrow. Employees could be paid everything promised to the point of the benefit change, but they can have certain benefits removed or reduced in the future. That’s seen as reasonable given they haven’t earned them yet. It’s different in the public sector.

In California (and a number of other states that follow a similar rule), these benefits can never be reduced. The problem, from a public-finance point of view, is that reducing benefits for new hires only won’t address the bulk of the debt problem until those employees start retiring in 25 or 30 years. Fixing the current debt problem requires dealing with current employees.

Ironically, almost all of the benefit increases public agencies have granted to union members since the 1999 passage of Senate Bill 400 have been done “retroactively.” In other words, the courts have allowed public agencies to give a boost in pensions to public employees for years they previously have worked – but they won’t allow those same agencies to reduce future benefits for years that have yet to be worked. This is politically controversial, but there’s little debate that such a rule has been followed by the courts.

“Public employees earn a vested right to their pension benefits immediately upon acceptance of employment and … such benefits cannot be reduced without a comparable advantage being provided,” according to the plaintiffs, as quoted in the appeals court decision. “A corollary of this approach is that public employees are also entitled to any increase in benefits conferred during their employment, beyond the benefit in place when they began.” In this view, compensation is a one-way ratchet.

This understanding has largely undermined every major reform proposed in California. For instance, the courts gutted the city of San Jose’s voter-approved 2012 pension-reform initiative because it rolled back future benefits for current employees. And the“California Rule” has been the obstacle that has stopped reformers from coming up with other similar approaches.

In this case, Justice James Richman ruled, “(W)hile a public employee does have a ‘vested right’ to a pension, that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension – not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating that pension. And the Legislature may, prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pension. So long as the Legislature’s modifications do not deprive the employee of a ‘reasonable’ pension, there is no constitutional violation. Here, the Legislature did not forbid the employer from providing the specified items to an employee as compensation, only the purely prospective inclusion of those items in the computation of the employee’s pension.”

The judge pointed to conclusions from California’s watchdog agency, the Little Hoover Commission, pointing to uncontrollable unfunded pension liabilities. As the commission explained, “To provide immediate savings of the scope needed, state and local governments must have the flexibility to alter future, unaccrued retirement benefits for current workers.” The commission pointed to spiking as a particular problem. This report, he wrote, is part of what motivated the state Legislature and governor to implement reform.

Furthermore, the judge pointed to previous cases acknowledging that government entities have the right to “make reasonable modifications and changes in the pensions system ‘to permit adjustments in accord with changing conditions and at the same time maintain the integrity of the system and carry out its beneficent policy.’” This echoes what myriad pension reformers have argued: agencies are not stuck watching their systems go over the cliff. They have the right and duty to make adjustments to assure their future solvency.

If the California Supreme Court sides with the unions, then local governments will have fewer options left to gain control of their pension debts. If the court agrees with Judge Richman, then pension reform could be a brand new ballgame – although it’s unclear whether the court might toss the California Rule entirely or simply allow localities to change some of the benefits within the framework of that rule.

The court has 60 days to decide whether to consider the matter, according to reports. Unions and reformers will no doubt be watching the court’s decision closely.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at [email protected].

This piece was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

The Amazing, Obscure, Complicated and Gigantic Pension Loophole

“The bottom line is that claiming the unfunded liability cost as part of an officer’s compensation is grossly and deliberately misleading.”

– LAPPL Board of Directors on 08/07/2014, in their post “Misuse of statistics behind erroneous LA police officer salary claims.”

This assertion, one that is widely held among representatives of public employees, lies at the heart of the debate over how much public employees really make, and greatly skews the related debate over how much pension funds can legitimately expect to earn on their invested assets.

Pension fund contributions have two components, the “normal contribution” and the “unfunded contribution.” The normal contribution represents the present value of future retirement pension income that is earned in any current year. For example, if an actively working participant in a pension plan earns “3 percent at 55,” then each year, another 3 percent is added to the total percentage that is multiplied by their final year of earnings in order to determine their pension benefit. That slice, 3 percent of their final salary, paid each year of their retirement as a portion of their total pension benefit, has a net present value today – and that is funded in advance through the “normal contribution” to the pension system each year. But if the net present value of a pension fund’s total future pension payments to current and future retirees exceeds the value of their actual invested assets, that “unfunded liability” must be reduced through additional regular annual payments.

Without going further into the obscure and complicated weeds of pension finance, this means that if you claim your pension plan can earn 7.5 percent per year, then your “normal contribution” is going to be a lot less than if you claim your pension plan can only earn 5 percent per year. By insisting that only the cost for the normal contribution is something that must be shared by employees through paycheck withholding, there is no incentive for pension participants, or the unions who represent them, to accept a realistic, conservative rate of return for these pension funds.

This is an amazing and gigantic loophole, with far reaching implications for the future solvency of pension plans, the growing burden on taxpayers, the publicly represented alleged financial health of public employee pension systems, the impetus for reform, and the overall economic health of America.

Governor Brown’s Public Employee Reform Act (PEPRA) calls for public employees to eventually pay 50 percent of the costs to fund their pensions, this phases in over the next several years. But this 50 percent share only applies to the “normal costs.”

In a 2013 California Policy Center analysis of the Orange County Employee Retirement System, it was shown that if they reduced their projected annual rate of return from the officially recognized 7.5 percent to 4.81 percent, the normal contribution would increase from $410 million per year to $606 million per year. In a 2014 CPC analysis of CalSTRS, it was shown that if they reduced their projected annual rate of return from the officially recognized 7.5 percent to 4.81 percent, the normal contribution would increase from $4.7 billion per year to $7.2 billion per year.

The rate of 4.81 percdent used in these analyses was not selected by accident. It refers to the Citibank Liability Index, which currently stands at 4.19 percent. This is the rate that represents the “risk free” rate of return for a pension fund. It is the rate that Moody’s Investor Services, joined by the Government Accounting Standards Board, intends to require government agencies to use when calculating their pension liability. As can be seen, going from aggressive return projections of 7.5 percent down to slightly below 5 percent results in a 50 percent increase to the normal contribution.

No wonder there is no pressure from participants to lower the projected rate of return of their pension funds. If under PEPRA, a public employee will eventually have to contribute, say, 20 percent of their pay via withholding in order to cover half of the “normal contribution,” were the pension system to use conservative investment assumptions, they would have to contribute 30 percent of their pay to the pension fund.

Moreover, these are best case examples, because the formulas provided by Moody’s, used in these studies, make conservative assumptions that understate the financial impact.

In another California Policy Center study, “A Pension Analysis Tool for Everyone,” the normal contribution as a percent of pay is calculated on a per individual basis. One of the baseline cases (Table 2) is for a “3 percent at 55″ public safety employee, assuming a 30 year career, retirement at age 55, collecting a pension for 25 years of retirement. At a projected rate of return of 7.75 percent per year, this employee’s pension fund would require 19.6 percent of their pay for the normal contribution. Under PEPRA, half of that would be about 10 percent via withholding from their paychecks. But at a rate of return of 6 percent, that contribution goes up to 31 percent. Download the spreadsheet and see for yourself – at a rate of return of 5 percent, the contribution goes up to 41 percent. That is, instead of having to pay 10 percent via withholding to make the normal contribution at a 7.75 percent assumed annual return, this employee would have to pay 20 percent via withholding at a 5 percent assumed annual return. The amount of the normal contribution doubles.

This why not holding public employees accountable for paying a portion of the unfunded contribution creates a perverse incentive for public employees, their unions, the pension systems, and the investment firms that make aggressive investments on behalf of the pension systems. Aggressive rate of return projections guarantee the actual share the employee has to pay is minimized, even as the unfunded liability swells every time returns fall short of projections. But if only the taxpayer is required to pick up the tab, so what?

Adopt misleadingly high return assumptions to minimize the employee’s normal contribution, and let taxpayers cover the inevitable shortfalls. Brilliant.

Public employee pension funds are unique in their ability to get away with this. Private sector pensions were reformed back in 1973 under ERISA rules such that the rate of return is limited to “market rates currently applicable for settling the benefit obligation or rates of return on high quality fixed income securities,” i.e., 5 percent would be considered an aggressive annual rate of return projection. If all public employee pension funds had to do were follow the rules that apply to private sector pension funds, there would not be any public sector pension crisis. And when public employees are liable through withholding for 50 percent of all contributions, funded and unfunded, that basic reform would become possible.

This is indeed an obscure, complicated, amazing and gigantic loophole. And it is time for more politicians and pundits to get into the weeds and fight this fight. Especially those who want to preserve the defined benefit. Until incentives for public employees and taxpayers are aligned, pension funds will cling to the delusion of high returns forever, until it all comes crashing down.

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.