San Bernardino exit plan cuts some pension costs

public employee union pensionA San Bernardino plan to exit bankruptcy follows the path of the Vallejo and Stockton exit plans, cutting bond debt and retiree health care but not pensions. Then it veers off in a new direction: contracting for fire, waste management and other services.

The contract services are expected to reduce city pension costs. Other pension savings come from a sharp increase in employee payments toward pensions and from a payment of only 1 percent on a $50 million bond issued in 2005 to cover pensions costs.

Last week, a member of the city council had a question as a long-delayed “plan of adjustment” to exit the bankruptcy, declared in August 2012, was approved on a 6-to-1 vote, meeting a May 30 deadline imposed by a federal judge.

“The justification from what I’m understanding from the plan — the justification for contracting is more or less to save the city from the pension obligation. Is that correct?” said Councilman Henry Nickel.

One of the slides outlining the summary of the recovery plan said: “CalPERS costs continue to escalate, making in-house service provision for certain functions unsustainable.”

The city manager, Allen Parker, told Nickel “that’s part of it” but not the “entirety.”

In addition to pension savings, he said, contracting with a private firm for refuse collection now handled through a special fund is expected to yield a “$5 million payment up front” into the deficit-ridden city general fund.

Parker said the California Public Employees Retirement System safety rate for firefighters is between 45 and 55 percent of base pay. “So if you have a fireman making say $100,000 a year, there is another $50,000 a year that goes to CalPERS,” he said.

An actuary estimated that contracting for fire services could save the city $2 million a year in pension costs, Parker said. The city expects total savings of $7 million or more a year, similar to a Santa Ana contract with the Orange County Fire Authority.

Unlike other unions, firefighters have not voluntarily agreed to help the struggling city by taking a 10 percent pay cut and foregoing merit increases. The cost of firefighter overtime has averaged $6.5 million in recent years.

After the court allowed the city to overturn a firefighter contract requiring “constant manning” last year, the city expected reduced staffing during off-hours. But overtime has not decreased, wiping out anticipated savings of $2.5 million this year.

Negotiations with the firefighters are difficult, Parker said, and their union has filed several lawsuits. He said the situation is “out of hand” and “can’t be contained,” part of the reason for the plan to contract for fire services.

The city expects fire service bids from San Bernardino County and others. A private firm, Centerra, has shown interest. Councilman Nickel said a legislator called about contracting with a private firm, suggesting “concern at the state level.”

Parker said a contract with a private firm would need a mutual aid agreement with neighboring government fire services. He said a San Manuel private fire service has been accepted by a fire chiefs association that manages the regional agreements.

Contracting for police services is not planned. Parker said the “one possible agency,” the San Bernardino County Sheriff‘s Department, made a $60 million proposal in 2012, reaffirmed last year, that would not yield city savings.

Fire and waste management are the biggest opportunities for savings and revenue among 15 options for contracting city services listed in the recovery plan summary. City employees are expected to be rehired by contractors.

Estimated annual savings are listed for contracting five other services: business licenses $650,000 to $900,000, fleet maintenance $400,000, soccer complex management $240,000 to $320,000, custodial $150,000, and graffiti abatement $132,600.

San Bernardino plan to return to solvency

In the 1960s, San Bernardino was the “epitome of middle-class living,” said the plan summary, and then a “profound and continuous decline” turned it into the poorest California city of its size (214,000).

Median San Bernardino household income was at the California average in 1969, an inflation-adjusted $54,999, before steadily falling by 2013 to $38,385, well below the state average of $61,094.

Financial trouble began before the recession. A unique form of government created “crippling ambiguities” of authority among the city manager, mayor, council and elected city attorney, leaving no one clearly in charge as the city slowly sank.

When the reckoning finally came in 2012, San Bernardino faced an $18 million cash shortfall and an inability to make payroll. After an emergency bankruptcy filing, the city became the first to skip its annual payments to CalPERS.

Now the skipped payment of $14.5 million is being repaid over two fiscal years with equal installments of about $7.2 million. The recovery plan also said with no elaboration: “FY 2019-20: $400,000 annually in penalties and interest.”

Replying to Nickel last week, the city manager explained why, if most employees are to be replaced by contract services, the plan does not propose to cut CalPERS debt. The city’s pensions have an “unfunded liability” of $285 million and are 74 percent funded.

Parker said the plan protects pension amounts already earned by city employees, even with a new employer, and like the Stockton and Vallejo plans reflects the view that pensions are needed to compete with other government employers in the job market.

“We naively thought we could negotiate more successfully, but that didn’t necessarily happen,” Parker said of mediation with CalPERS. An early plan called for a “fresh start” stretching out pension payments, yielding small savings in the first years.

And like Vallejo but not Stockton, which said from the outset it did not want to cut pensions, Parker said there was fear of a costly and lengthy legal battle with deep-pocketed CalPERS, possibly all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One of the unique provisions in the San Bernardino city charter, which voters declined to overturn last year, bases police and firefighter pay on the average safety pay in 10 other cities, not labor bargaining.

Despite that link, police and firefighter compensation is said to be 8 to 10 percent below market because of low benefits. The bankrupt city stopped paying the employee CalPERS share and raised police and firefighters rates to 14 percent of pay.

Higher pension contributions from employees saved the city about $8 million last fiscal year, the plan said. Retiree health payments were reduced from a maximum of $450 per month to $112 per month, saving $213,750 last year.

“The filing of the plan is only the beginning of a long and very difficult process regarding confirmation and continued litigation with some of our creditors,” the city attorney, Gary Saenz, told the city council last week.

Berdoo

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Calpensions.com.

San Bernardino’s bankruptcy plan favors CalPERS

As reported by the L.A. Times:

San Bernardino’s plan to exit bankruptcy has at least one winner, plenty of losers and could have repercussions for other California cities.

The city will pay every penny of the almost $50 million it owes to the California Public Employee Retirement System, known as CalPERS, if a federal judge approves the plan.

But it will only pay one penny for every dollar it owes to some bondholders who helped the city pay its CalPERS bill over the years.

Retirees will lose healthcare benefits that they were promised. …

Click here to read the full article

Pension Reformers are not “The Enemy” of Public Safety

“You will find that powerful financial and investment institutions are the ones promoting the attacks on your pensions. Firms like Berkshire-Hathaway and the Koch brothers are backing political candidates and causes all over the country in the hopes of making this issue relevant and in the mainstream media. Why? Because if they can crack your pension and turn it into a 401(k), they will make billions. Your pension is the golden egg that they are dying to get their hands upon. By the way, it was those same financial geniuses that brought about the Great Recession in the first place. After nearly collapsing the entire financial system of western civilization, they successfully managed to deflect the blame off of themselves and onto government employee pay/benefits.” – Jim Foster, Vice President, Long Beach Police Officers Association, posted on PubSec Alliance website

These comments form the conclusion to a piece published by Foster entitled “What does ‘unfunded liability’ mean?,” published on PubSecAlliance.com, an online “community of law enforcement associations and unions.” If you review the “supporters” page, you can see that the website’s “founding members,” “affiliated organizations,” and “other groups whose membership is pending” are all law enforcement unions.

public employee union pensionIn Foster’s discussion of what constitutes an unfunded pension liability, he compares the liability to a mortgage, correctly pointing out that like a mortgage, an unfunded pension liability can be paid down over many years. But Foster fails to take into account the fact that a mortgage can be negotiated at a fixed rate of interest, whereas a pension liability will grow whenever the rates earned by the pension system’s investments fall short of expectations. When the average taxpayer signs a 30 year fixed mortgage, they don’t expect to suddenly find out their payments have doubled, or tripled, or gone up by an order of magnitude. But that’s exactly what’s happened with pensions.

Apart from ignoring this crucial difference between mortgages and unfunded pension liabilities, Foster’s piece makes no mention of the other reason unfunded pension liabilities have grown to alarming levels, the retroactive enhancements to the pension benefit formula – enhancements gifted to public employees and imposed on taxpayers starting in 1999. These enhancements were made at precisely the same time as the market was delivering unsustainable gains engineered by, as Foster puts it, the “same financial geniuses that brought about the Great Recession in the first place,” and “nearly collapsing the entire financial system of western civilization.”

This is a huge failure of logic. Foster is suggesting that the Wall Street crowd is to blame for the unfunded liabilities of pensions, but ignoring the fact that these unfunded liabilities are caused by (1) accepting the impossible promises made by Wall Street investment firms during the stock market bubbles and using that to justify financially unsustainable (and retroactive) benefit formula enhancements, and (2) basing the entire funding analysis for pension systems on rates of return that can only be achieved by relying on stock market bubbles – i.e., doomed to crash.

You can’t blame “Wall Street” for the financial challenges facing pension funds, yet demand benefits based on financial assumptions that only those you taint as Wall Street charlatans are willing to promote.

Foster ignores the fact that the stock market bubbles (2000, 2008, and 2014) were inflated then reflated by lowering interest rates and accumulating debt to stimulate the economy. But interest rates cannot go any lower. When the market corrects, and pension funds start demanding even larger annual payments to fund pensions and OPEB that now average over $100,000 per year for California’s full-career public safety retirees, Foster and his ilk are going to have a lot of explaining to do.

There is a deeper, more ominous context to Foster’s remarks, however, which is the power that government unions, especially public safety unions, wield over politicians and over public perception. The navigation bar of the website that published his essay, PubSecAlliance, is but a mild reminder of the power police organizations now have over the political process. Items such as “Intel Report,” “Pay Wars,” “Tactics,” “Tales of Triumph,” and “The Enemy” are examples of resources on this website.

When reviewing PubSecAlliance’s reports on “enemies,” notwithstanding the frightening reality of police organizations keeping lists of political enemies, were any of the people and organizations listed selected despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of law enforcement? Because pension reformers and government union reformers are not “enemies” of law enforcement, or government employees, or government programs in general. There is no connection.

Here are a few points for Jim Foster to consider, along with his leadership colleagues at the Long Beach Police Officers Association, and police union members everywhere.

TEN POINTS FOR MEMBERS OF PUBLIC SAFETY UNIONS TO CONSIDER

(1)  Not all pension reformers want to abolish the defined benefit. Restoring the more sustainable pension benefit formulas in use prior to 1999, and adopting conservative rate-of-return assumptions would make the defined benefit financially sustainable and fair to taxpayers.

(2)  Over the long term, the real, inflation-adjusted return on investments cannot be realistically expected to exceed the rate of national and global economic growth. You are being sold a 7.0 percent (or more) annual rate of return because it is an excuse to keep your normal contribution artificially low, and mislead politicians into thinking pension systems are financially sound.

(3)  As noted, you can’t blame “Wall Street” for the financial challenges facing pension funds, yet demand benefits based on financial assumptions that only those you taint as Wall Street charlatans are willing to promote.

(4)  If public safety employers didn’t have to pay 50 percent or more of payroll into the pension funds – normal and unfunded contributions combined – there would be money to hire more public safety employees, improving their own safety and better protecting the public.

(5)  Public safety personnel are eyewitnesses every day to the destructive effects of failed social welfare programs that destroy families, ineffective public schools with unaccountable unionized teachers, and a flawed immigration policy that prioritizes the admission of millions of unskilled immigrants over those with valuable skills. They ought to stick their necks out on these political issues, instead of invariably fighting exclusively to increase their pay and benefits.

(6)  The solution to the financial challenges facing all workers, public and private, is to lower the cost of living through competitive development of land, energy, water and transportation assets. Just two examples: rolling back CEQA hindrances to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, or construct indirect potable water reuse assets in San Jose. Where are the police and firefighters on these critical issues? Creating inexpensive abundance through competition and development helps all workers, instead of just the anointed unionized government elite.

(7)  If pension funds were calibrated to accept 5.0 percent annual returns, instead of 7.0 percent or more, they could be invested in revenue producing infrastructure such as dams, desalination plants, sewage distillation and reuse, bridges, and port expansion, to name a few – all of which have the potential yield 5.0 percent per year to investors, but usually not 7.0 percent.

(8)  Government unions are partners with Wall Street and other crony capitalist interests. The idea that they are opposed to each other is one of the biggest frauds in American history. Government unions control local politicians, who award contracts, regulate and inspect businesses, float bond issues, and preserve financially unsustainable pension benefits. This is a gold mine to financial special interests, and to large corporate interests who know that the small businesses lack the resources to comply with excessive regulations or afford lobbyists.

(9)  Government unions elect their bosses, they wield the coercive power of the state, they favor expanded government and expanded compensation for government employees which is an intrinsic conflict of interest, and they protect incompetent (or worse) government employees. They should be abolished. Voluntary associations without collective bargaining rights would still have plenty of political influence.

(10)  Expectations of security have risen, the value of life has risen, the complexity of law enforcement challenges has risen, and the premium law enforcement officers should receive as a result has also risen. But unaffordable pensions, along with the consequent excessive payments of overtime, have priced public safety compensation well beyond what qualified people are willing to accept. Saying this does not make us “The Enemy.”

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

How California’s State and Local Governments Can Save $50 Billion Per Year

Photo Courtesy of 401(K) 2013, Flickr

Photo Courtesy of 401(K) 2013, Flickr

Back in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the internet bubble’s collapse, California’s state and local governments endured a period of austerity that resulted in “furloughs,” where, typically, employees would take Fridays off in exchange for a 20 percent cut in their pay. That is, they worked 20 percent less, and made 20 percent less in pay – but their rate of pay was not cut.

This display of “sacrifice” was an eye opener for private sector workers, especially salaried employees of small businesses, who endured cuts to their rates of pay at the same time as their hours of work increased. Most people in the private sector back in the early 2000s felt lucky to have a job, even if it meant working harder and making less.

There’s a lesson to be learned from the period of state and local government “furloughs” in California: California’s government functioned just fine with 20 percent fewer hours spent at the job, overall, and California’s government workers got by, overall, making 20 percent less money. So since we know these cuts are feasible, it is interesting to estimate just how much money Californians would save, if there were a 20 percent reduction to California’s state and local government workforce, and then there were a 20 percent reduction to the pay and benefits collected by those state and local government workers who remained employed.

Getting information on just how much California’s state and local workers make is notoriously difficult. California’s state controller’s Public Pay database collects the data, but presents “averages” that include part-time employees in the denominator, and do not consolidate the data. Transparent California, a public information project jointly produced by the California Policy Center and the Nevada Policy Research Institute, provides very good information on individual pay and benefits, but also does not consolidate the information.

A California Policy Center study, “How Much Do California’s State, City and County Workers Really Make?” uses 2012 raw data from the state controller that screens out part-time workers to develop averages for city, county and state workers.

California’s State and Local Government Employees
Average Compensation by Entity – 2012

20140131_CA-Gov-Pay_Table2-b

A recent UnionWatch analysis of Los Angeles Unified School District provided a baseline estimate for total teacher compensation – although in variance to the table, please note the same analysis adds an estimated value of $4,033 per teacher to take into account the state’s direct contribution to CalSTRS. As a representative example of total teacher pay, LAUSD is pretty good; the California Dept. of Education reports the Statewide Average Teacher base salary averaged $69,324 during 2014, nearly identical to the LAUSD analysis.

Los Angeles Unified School District
Average Compensation by Job Class – 2013

20150303-UW_Ring-LAUSD-Actual

Armed with this information, and cross-referencing with the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimate of current numbers of full time state and local government employees in California (ref. Government Employment & Payroll, and select “state” and “local,” in each case selecting “California”), we can make a reasonable estimate of how much our full time state/local workforce is currently costing taxpayers. We can also estimate how much a 20 percent reduction in workforce combined with a 20 percent reduction in total compensation would save taxpayers each year:

California State and Local Government Employees, Est. Total Cost per Year
Projected Annual Savings via 20% Reduction to Headcount and to Compensation

20150512-UW_20percent-solution

While this thought exercise may seem to be an exercise in futility, the fact is, we’ve tried it once already, and it worked. That is, during the furloughs of the early 2000s, California’s state and local government workers got by just fine with a 20 percent reduction in pay, and California’s state and local government services functioned adequately even though 20 percent of the workforce was absent (i.e., they were all taking Friday’s off).

It is fair to ask why the focus must always be on austerity. Why not pay everyone more in the private sector? That’s a good question and the answer is simple: It’s impossible. The average total compensation in California’s private sector is roughly half what public employees make. There isn’t enough money in the world to pay everyone this much money, and it is grossly unfair to taxpayers and private workers to treat public sector workers as a privileged class, exempt from the economic challenges facing everyone else.

The problem is even deeper than just one of inequity and insolvency. The problem with creating a privileged class of government workers is that they no longer make common cause with the people they serve. This consequence should trouble social liberals at least as much as it troubles fiscal conservatives, because the most powerful bloc of voters in California, unionized, politically active government workers, are putting their personal financial interests ahead of other worthy government projects. Imagine what $52.7 billion could buy.

The solution is to combine cutbacks in government employee compensation with investments in infrastructure and reductions in regulatory hurdles in order to reduce prices for goods and services. Government created artificial scarcity has raised the price of housing, energy, water and transportation to levels that only the elite can easily afford. If government workers were compelled to make common cause with other workers, instead of this elite, maybe they would finally support reforms to lower the cost of living.

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

California Is Not Disneyland

At the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, we have seen Proposition 13 blamed for just about everything. A national publication blamed the tax limiting measure for the not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, while a high school physical education coach wrote in a community paper that the loss of shots by his track and field team was due to the lack of money to cut the grass, and this, of course, was due to Proposition 13.

Now we’re seeing attacks on HJTA sponsored Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, which makes the taxing process more democratic by allowing voters to decide on local tax increases and to assure property owners that they would have a meaningful say on new assessments, fees and charges. One such attack was a recent opinion piece, calling for the repeal of Proposition 218, because it robs voters of their “democratic power.”

This critic argued that, because Proposition 218 guarantees the voters’ right to approve or reject new taxes, it prevents politicians from matching revenue to their spending: “ [L]ocal officials can give big pensions to cops, but don’t have the power to raise taxes to pay for those pensions.”

But this begs the obvious question: If officials are going to provide benefits to government employees that are unsustainable, wouldn’t it make more sense to limit spending rather than having an open season on taxpayers who are already among the most taxed in all 50 states?

Pundits who call for the repeal of Prop 218 are naïve. They see the state of our political environment as if it were from a sanitized civics textbook or perhaps like Disneyland, a well ordered theme park where fantasies can be made to come true.

DisneylandThe Magic Kingdom may seem genteel, filled with reasonable and well behaved people, when viewed from a tower in the Sleeping Beauty Castle, but outside the park in Realville, a battle is raging between those who work hard to support themselves and their families and those who believe politics is an extension of a grand spoils system where taxes are the preferred weapon to extract ever more money from those who earn it.

California politics is a bare knuckles contest where, by far, the largest and most powerful competitors are the government employee unions. Because of their ability to turn out members to vote for the union label and their ability to use mandatory union dues for any political purpose, they are able to elect a majority to the Legislature, a majority that owes them allegiance.  At the local level, they are just as influential, controlling a majority of votes on many city councils.

And the unions do not adhere to Marquis of Queensbury rules. In San Diego they sent out goon squads to intimidate signature gatherers for a reasonable ballot measure to reform pensions. And in Costa Mesa, they went so far as to hire private detectives to follow city council members, who refused to roll over under union pressure, in an effort to find incriminating information about them.

The result of this union power is evidenced by the recent bankruptcies of cities like Stockton and San Bernardino, where union-beholden council members voted increases in pay and benefits that were unsustainable.

Ironically, had officials been able to raise taxes without going to voters as required by Propositions 13 and 218, the communities would be worse off because California taxpayers and businesses have learned that they can vote with their feet by fleeing to more tax friendly communities or states.  Jurisdictions which lose their tax payers and are left with nothing but tax receivers don’t do very well.

In the real world of California politics, Propositions 13 and 218 are important checks against a corrupt political establishment that is beholden to special interests. So let’s not pretend that this is Fantasyland. The only thing that California politics has in common with Disneyland is that most of the laws enacted that hurt taxpayers are downright goofy.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This piece originally appeared at HTJA.org

Pension Reformers are not “The Enemy” of Public Safety

“You will find that powerful financial and investment institutions are the ones promoting the attacks on your pensions. Firms like Berkshire-Hathaway and the Koch brothers are backing political candidates and causes all over the country in the hopes of making this issue relevant and in the mainstream media. Why? Because if they can crack your pension and turn it into a 401(k), they will make billions. Your pension is the golden egg that they are dying to get their hands upon. By the way, it was those same financial geniuses that brought about the Great Recession in the first place. After nearly collapsing the entire financial system of western civilization, they successfully managed to deflect the blame off of themselves and onto government employee pay/benefits.”

– Jim Foster, Vice President, Long Beach Police Officers Association, posted on PubSec Alliance website

These comments form the conclusion to a piece published by Foster entitled “What does “unfunded liability” mean?” published on PubSecAlliance.com, an online “community of law enforcement associations and unions.” If you review the “supporters” page, you can see that the website’s “founding members,” “affiliated organizations” and “other groups whose membership is pending” are all law enforcement unions.

In Foster’s discussion of what constitutes an unfunded pension liability, he compares the liability to a mortgage, correctly pointing out that like a mortgage, an unfunded pension liability can be paid down over many years. But Foster fails to take into account the fact that a mortgage can be negotiated at a fixed rate of interest, whereas a pension liability will grow whenever the rates earned by the pension system’s investments fall short of expectations. When the average taxpayer signs a 30 year fixed mortgage, they don’t expect to suddenly find out their payments have doubled, or tripled, or gone up by an order of magnitude. But that’s exactly what’s happened with pensions.

Apart from ignoring this crucial difference between mortgages and unfunded pension liabilities, Foster’s piece makes no mention of the other reason unfunded pension liabilities have grown to alarming levels, the retroactive enhancements to the pension benefit formula – enhancements gifted to public employees and imposed on taxpayers starting in 1999. These enhancements were made at precisely the same time as the market was delivering unsustainable gains engineered by, as Foster puts it, the “same financial geniuses that brought about the Great Recession in the first place,” and “nearly collapsing the entire financial system of western civilization.”

This is a huge failure of logic. Foster is suggesting that the Wall Street crowd is to blame for the unfunded liabilities of pensions, but ignoring the fact that these unfunded liabilities are caused by (1) accepting the impossible promises made by Wall Street investment firms during the stock market bubbles and using that to justify financially unsustainable (and retroactive) benefit formula enhancements, and (2) basing the entire funding analysis for pension systems on rates of return that can only be achieved by relying on stock market bubbles – i.e., doomed to crash.

You can’t blame “Wall Street” for the financial challenges facing pension funds, yet demand benefits based on financial assumptions that only those you taint as Wall Street charlatans are willing to promote.

Foster ignores the fact that the stock market bubbles (2000, 2008 and 2014) were inflated then reflated by lowering interest rates and accumulating debt to stimulate the economy. But interest rates cannot go any lower. When the market corrects, and pension funds start demanding even larger annual payments to fund pensions and OPEB that now average over $100,000 per year for California’s full-career public safety retirees, Foster and his ilk are going to have a lot of explaining to do.

There is a deeper, more ominous context to Foster’s remarks, however, which is the power that government unions, especially public safety unions, wield over politicians and over public perception. The navigation bar of the website that published his essay, PubSecAlliance, is but a mild reminder of the power police organizations now have over the political process. Items such as “Intel Report,” “Pay Wars,” “Tactics,” “Tales of Triumph” and “The Enemy” are examples of resources on this website.

When reviewing PubSecAlliance’s reports on “enemies,” notwithstanding the frightening reality of police organizations keeping lists of political enemies, were any of the people and organizations listed selected despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of law enforcement? Because pension reformers and government union reformers are not “enemies” of law enforcement, or government employees, or government programs in general. There is no connection.

Here are a few points for Jim Foster to consider, along with his leadership colleagues at the Long Beach Police Officers Association, and police union members everywhere.

TEN POINTS FOR MEMBERS OF PUBLIC SAFETY UNIONS TO CONSIDER

(1)  Not all pension reformers want to abolish the defined benefit. Restoring the more sustainable pension benefit formulas in use prior to 1999, and adopting conservative rate-of-return assumptions would make the defined benefit financially sustainable and fair to taxpayers.

(2)  Over the long term, the real, inflation-adjusted return on investments cannot be realistically expected to exceed the rate of national and global economic growth. You are being sold a 7 percent (or more) annual rate of return because it is an excuse to keep your normal contribution artificially low, and mislead politicians into thinking pension systems are financially sound.

(3)  As noted, you can’t blame “Wall Street” for the financial challenges facing pension funds, yet demand benefits based on financial assumptions that only those you taint as Wall Street charlatans are willing to promote.

(4)  If public safety employers didn’t have to pay 50 percent or more of payroll into the pension funds – normal and unfunded contributions combined – there would be money to hire more public safety employees, improving their own safety and better protecting the public.

(5)  Public safety personnel are eyewitnesses every day to the destructive effects of failed social welfare programs that destroy families, ineffective public schools with unaccountable unionized teachers, and a flawed immigration policy that prioritizes the admission of millions of unskilled immigrants over those with valuable skills. They ought to stick their necks out on these political issues, instead of invariably fighting exclusively to increase their pay and benefits.

(6)  The solution to the financial challenges facing all workers, public and private, is to lower the cost of living through competitive development of land, energy, water and transportation assets. Just two examples: rolling back CEQA hindrances to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach, or construct indirect potable water reuse assets in San Jose. Where are the police and firefighters on these critical issues? Creating inexpensive abundance through competition and development helps all workers, instead of just the anointed unionized government elite.

(7)  If pension funds were calibrated to accept 5 percent annual returns, instead of 7 percent or more, they could be invested in revenue producing infrastructure such as dams, desalination plants, sewage distillation and reuse, bridges and port expansion, to name a few – all of which have the potential yield 5 percent per year to investors, but usually not 7 percent.

(8)  Government unions are partners with Wall Street and other crony capitalist interests. The idea that they are opposed to each other is one of the biggest frauds in American history. Government unions control local politicians, who award contracts, regulate and inspect businesses, float bond issues, and preserve financially unsustainable pension benefits. This is a gold mine to financial special interests, and to large corporate interests who know that the small businesses lack the resources to comply with excessive regulations or afford lobbyists.

(9)  Government unions elect their bosses, they wield the coercive power of the state, they favor expanded government and expanded compensation for government employees which is an intrinsic conflict of interest, and they protect incompetent (or worse) government employees. They should be abolished. Voluntary associations without collective bargaining rights would still have plenty of political influence.

(10)  Expectations of security have risen, the value of life has risen, the complexity of law enforcement challenges has risen, and the premium law enforcement officers should receive as a result has also risen. But unaffordable pensions, along with the consequent excessive payments of overtime, have priced public safety compensation well beyond what qualified people are willing to accept. Saying this does not make us “The Enemy.”

*   *   *

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

Pension initiative may empower local reforms

The leaders of two local pension reforms, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, are working with a coalition on a statewide initiative to help local governments make cost-cutting pension reforms.

DeMaio called the proposal a “tool kit” for local officials to “fix the problems in a manner that reflects their community’s ability.” Reed said the proposal would enable “measures that people can do to make their own decisions in their own communities.”

During a break at the Reason Foundation’s third annual Pension Summit in Sacramento last week, the two men said they are “on the same page” and working with a coalition on the details of a proposed initiative for the November 2016 state ballot.

DeMaio said the state constitutional amendment would apply to the state, cities, counties, other local governments, and the University of California — all the “instrumentalities” of California government.

DeMaio
“I’m very big on making certain that when we move ahead on reform that it’s unassailable in the courts,” said DeMaio.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, which opposed pension cuts in three recent city bankruptcies, and the state Public Employment Relations, which tried to block the San Diego and San Jose reforms, would be covered by the initiative.

“They will have no ability but to implement faithfully the voter’s initiative,” De Maio said.

A case in point for local empowerment: A drive led by David Grau and others gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the ballot last fall to switch new Ventura County employees to a 401(k)-style plan.

But a superior court judge removed the initiative from the ballot, ruling that nothing in the 1937 act covering 20 county pension systems allows them to “opt out or terminate” through a countywide initiative or a vote of the county supervisors.

Empowering the reform process is a big change from past statewide proposals for a specific plan, such as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s briefly backed 401(k)-style plan in 2005 or Reed’s lower-cost pension option in 2013. None made the ballot.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said De Maio.

Reed
Reed said a statewide initiative should be “simple and easy to explain.” He said a “big omnibus” pension proposal is difficult to explain and easy for opponents to mischaracterize.

A structural initiative is common ground for a Democrat (Reed) and a Republican (DeMaio) who led the campaigns for two very different local pension reforms overwhelmingly approved by voters in June 2012.

The San Diego initiative, overcoming a PERB lawsuit to keep it off the ballot, switched all new hires except police from pensions to 401(k)-style individual investment plans now common in the private sector.

In San Jose, the reform gave current workers the option, for pensions earned in the future, of paying more or receiving a lower pension. A superior court blocked the option. Reed said other parts of the initiative have saved $80 million to $100 million so far.

Another thing the two battle-tested reformers have in common is experience in laying the groundwork, moving in steps, and not trying to do everything at once, which seems to be the current strategy of the statewide initiative.

Before the big reform in 2012, Reed changed the San Jose pension boards, adding independence and expertise. He backed two successful ballot measures in 2010 limiting police and firefighter arbitration and allowing switches to lower pension plans.

DeMaio backed a ballot measure in 2006 requiring voter approval of pension increases, city council approval in 2008 of a “hybrid” combining a lower pension and 401(k)-style plan, and a 50-50 employer and employee split of pension costs in 2009.

Union1

Dozens of government employees picketed the appearance of Reed and DeMaio at the Reason pension summit, an early warning from a coalition of public employee unions that a pension initiative may be opposed at every step, including the first one.

Schwarzenegger dropped his 401(k)-style plan in April 2005 after emotional union television ads contended death and disability would be eliminated for police and firefighters and their families, a claim the governor disputed.

After former Assemblyman Roger Niello, D-Sacramento, filed a pension reform initiative in 2011, the union coalition picketed a luxury auto dealership he partly owned, with one sign saying, “Pensions not Porsches.”

Major donors to a new initiative might face the same campaign tactics. The number of voter signatures needed to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot next year is 585,407, down sharply from 807,615 last year due to low voter turnout in November.

But several million dollars probably would be needed for a signature drive, particularly to screen for false signatures (opponents are sometimes accused of providing) and to gather a surplus as a safety cushion.

A news release from the union coalition, Californians for Retirement Security, said the new initiative is expected to be financed by “Texas billionaire John Arnold, a former Enron executive” who contributed to the Reed and Ventura County initiatives.

In San Diego, paid signature gatherers for the pension reform initiative posted at retail stores were often joined by “blockers,” union members and others who urged shoppers not to sign the petition.

Time and money may be needed for court battles after an initiative is filed. Reed dropped his initiative last year contending that Attorney General Kamala Harris gave the measure an “inaccurate and misleading” summary that made voter approval unlikely.

Dan Pellissier of California Pension Reform suspended a pension initiative drive in 2012 “after determining the attorney general’s false and misleading title and summary makes it nearly impossible to pass.”

Pension reform had strong support in a Public Policy Institute of California poll in January last year. Public pensions were “at least somewhat of a problem” for 85 percent of likely voters, and 73 percent supported switching new hires to 401(k)-style plans.

“Without serious pension reform in California, we face a future of cuts to important services and more tax revenues diverted to unsustainable pension payments,” Reed said in a news release last month.

“It is clear that politicians in Sacramento are not serious about reforming unsustainable pension benefits for government employees, so voters must take the matter into their own hands and impose reform at the ballot box,” DeMaio said.

Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, had a different view in a news release issued by the union coalition last week.

“This new effort is likely to eliminate retirement security for millions of more Californians, worsen economic inequality in our state, and undermine the ability to attract and retain quality firefighters, teachers, police and other public servants,” Low said. “We are confident we can defeat it.”

Originally published by Calpensions.com

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Calpensions.com.

Eureka Faces Pension Headwinds – Just Like Every Other California City

The city of Eureka on the far north coast of our state is part of a fabled land, far removed from the rest of drought stricken California. The winds that the ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure push north find welcoming mountains and canyons in and around Eureka, drenching them with rain, nourishing endless groves of the tallest trees on earth, the magnificent coast redwoods. Gushing rivers run through thick green forests scented with maritime air. Downtown, the mansions of the 19th century lumber barons defy time, marvelous, intricate, stunning. And on postcard perfect shorelines, the rugged Pacific surf surges against the rocks. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place.

But when it comes to government unions making sure their compensation crowds out any hope of fiscal sanity, Eureka is as ordinary, and as challenged, as every other city in California.

A few weeks ago the California Policy Center released a study “California City Pension Burdens” that compiled key financial indicators for every city in California. When it came to pension contributions as a percent of general fund revenue, the city of Eureka made the top ten. That is, in 2015, Eureka will send 11.3 percent of its entire incoming revenue from taxes and fees to the giant pension fund, CalPERS.

These findings, covered in the Eureka Times-Standard, earned this rebuke in a guest editorial submitted by Eureka City Councilmember Linda Atkins on March 17th:

“… the California Policy Center, a renowned conservative pressure group disguised as a “think tank” that’s out to push the California public into believing that they deserve government services for free and that a secure retirement is only for those with enough income to provide it for themselves. Their hope is to dismantle all reliable retirement systems, including Social Security, so that you and I will live a frightening old age in poverty, while the execs and corporations rake in the billions.”

One may attack the messenger, or face facts. The city of Eureka has an officially recognized unfunded pension liability of $53 million, which equates to $4,529 per household. That number, of course, does not include the additional liability facing local taxpayers for Humboldt County’s pension liabilities, or local school districts, or state agencies. And if there is another market downturn, these unfunded liabilities and the city’s required annual contribution will go way up.

No reasonable person expects government services to be free. But in Eureka during 2013 the average full time police officer collected pay and benefits – including the city’s contribution to CalPERS – of $110,280; the average full-time firefighter, $120,243 (download spreadsheet). The average pension collected in 2013 by retired city employees with 30+ years of service, public safety and miscellaneous combined, was $58,397. All of this in a town with a median household income of $36,393 and an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent. It should be possible to question these rates of pay and pensions for Eureka’s city employees while still respecting and appreciating the work they do.

To set Ms. Atkins’ mind at rest, on the topic of retirement security, here are just two of the California Policy Center’s well-documented recommendations for rescuing the finances of cities and counties in California, including Eureka:

(1) Preserve Social Security by enrolling every government employee in the program, subject to the same rules and benefit formulas that apply to current participants. In terms of return on investment, Social Security pays high income individuals far less in retirement compared to low income individuals. Therefore, because government workers make so much more than private sector workers, enrolling America’s millions of highly compensated government workers in Social Security would significantly reduce any eventual financial challenges the system will face.

(2) Preserve defined benefit pensions for government employees by changing the benefit formulas, retroactively, to the precise annual multipliers and retirement ages that were in effect prior to 1999, when pension bankers and unions began pressuring politicians into enhancing these benefits, retroactively, to levels far beyond what is fair to taxpayers or financially sustainable. Alternatively, simply suspend pension cost-of-living increases, change benefit formulas prospectively, and raise employee contribution rates, until the systems are 100% funded.

We invite Ms. Atkins to identify any “right wing pressure group,” anywhere, that supports either of these recommendations.

Atkins is at her most thoughtful when she describes the crash of 2008. She writes:

“Then came the criminal actions from Wall Street that caused the Great Recession, where risky mortgages were “bundled” into investment instruments that were sold to many retirement funds as “safe” investments. Investing in Americans’ mortgages used to be very safe; people were vetted very well before they were given the opportunity to buy a home. Then came Wall Street with “sub-prime” mortgages, giving loans to people who never had a chance of being able to pay them back. The banks then bundled these loans and offered them as stable investments. Then came the crash of 2008. Who got hurt? All the pension fund investors who purchased the bogus “bundles” and of course the rest of America who lost jobs, homes and futures because of the greed and avarice of those Wall Street bankers.”

All true. But what Atkins doesn’t care to admit is that public sector pensions are the last, best con job of the most corrupt among these “Wall Street bankers.” Just as people bought overpriced homes who could never afford to pay them back, pension funds – who are the biggest players on Wall Street – are pretending they can earn high-returns forever. And just like the big bankers, the pension funds expect taxpayers to bail them out.

There is a hypocrisy involved in lumping advocates for pension and contribution reform in with “execs and corporations” who “rake in billions.” Because the high returns pension funds currently earn depend on a rising stock market, jacked up by debt fueled, unsustainable consumer spending. Without corporate profits, corporate stocks don’t appreciate, and pension funds go broke. No profits, no pensions.

The hypocrisy doesn’t end there. When pension funds struggle financially – which they will more than ever when we return to sustainable rates of asset appreciation – the government unions and their supporters call on us to “tax the rich.” But those taxes aren’t for us. Those taxes are to pay government employees twice as much, or more, as ordinary private citizens.

But all of this is far too big to constitute a “sound bite,” so none of it can possibly be true, right Councilmember Atkins? It’s much easier to suggest that any criticism of pension excess must emanate from a “right wing pressure group.”

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

Brown plan may cut state retiree health payment

Something that rarely happens in California could result from Gov. Brown’s proposal to contain growing state worker retiree health care costs — benefits received by current government retirees might be reduced.

Part of the governor’s proposal allows state workers to choose a new low-cost health plan, increasing take-home pay. If enough choose the new option, the average cost of four health plans used to set retiree health care insurance payments would be lowered.

How many would choose the option is unknown. But the low-cost plan may have the potential to soon slow some of the rapid growth in health care costs, unlike other parts of the proposal that have delayed impact and require bargaining with labor unions.

Last week at a Senate and Assembly public retirement committee orientation, the new Senate chairman, Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, told a Brown administration official his committee will hold a hearing on the low-cost health plan proposal.

He did not mention “vested rights,” which under California court decisions protects public pensions from cuts. It’s been the central issue in attempts by local governments to cut retiree health care benefits in recent years.

Senator Pan

Pan, a pediatrician and former chairman of the Assembly health committee, said “there are some policy concerns” about whether the low-cost options ensures state workers have access to adequate health care when they retire.

“I realize it’s voluntary but, having been a former health committee chair, voluntary still has certain implications on choices people make, and so forth, and how that can impact other employees,” Pan said.

The senator said his committee hearing on the low-cost health plan would be separate from budget committee action on the plan. Some past decisions on key budget issues have emerged from leadership meetings.

Odd as it may seem, the health care subsidy state workers receive when retired, often 100 percent of the insurance premium, is more generous than the subsidy on the job, usually 80 to 85 percent of the premium, depending on labor bargaining.

Active state workers once had the same full health care subsidy as retirees. Then in a state budget crunch in the early 1990s, the state saved money when workers agreed in labor contract bargaining to pick up some of the health care cost.

There is no labor bargaining for retirees. So retirees continue to receive the average payment of the four health plans with the largest state worker enrollment, which can cover 100 percent of the premium for retirees and 90 percent for their dependents.

The new state budget the governor proposed in January would give active state workers the option of choosing a low-cost health plan with a high “deductible” that must be paid out of pocket before insurance covers expenses.

To help workers who choose the low-cost plan pay deductible costs, the state would contribute to a tax-deferred “Health Savings Account,” a 401(k)-style individual investment plan.

President Obama’s health care act imposes a “Cadillac tax” on full-coverage “platinum” health plans in 2018, a move to control costs by encouraging employers to move toward plans with higher deductibles and more out-of-pocket expenses.

“The current ‘platinum’ level of health coverage leaves the state — and employees — vulnerable to to the pending Cadillac Tax,” the governor’s proposed state budget said in January.

Health

After a pension reform in 2012 and a phased-in $5 billion annual rate increase last year for the underfunded California State Teachers Retirement System, Brown’s new budget plan would pay down a huge debt for retiree health care promised state workers.

The state worker retiree health care debt or “unfunded liability” is estimated to be $72 billion over the next 30 years. That’s more than the unfunded liability CalPERS reported for state worker pensions last year, $50 billion.

If nothing is done to contain the rapidly growing cost, the state worker retiree health care debt is expected to reach $90 billion in the next five years.

The state will spend an estimated $1.9 billion on retiree health care next year, four times as much as $458 million spent in 2001. Retiree health care will be 1.6 percent of the general fund, up from 0.6 percent 15 years ago.

Brown’s plan would save the state money in the future by switching from “pay-as-you-go” funding, which only pays the health insurance premiums each year, to pension-like “prefunding” that invests additional money to earn interest.

The budget calls for bargaining a 50-50 split between employers and employees of the retiree health care “normal” cost, the actuarially determined value of retiree health care earned by workers during a year.

For current state workers, prefunding would be a bite from their paycheck. The state estimates that its half of the retiree health care normal cost will be $600 million a year when prefunding is fully phased in.

“The proposal to eliminate the unfunded liability, by the state and our employees sharing in the cost of prefunding those benefits, is generally a matter of bargaining, and those will be pursued at the bargaining table,” Richard Gillihan, Brown’s Human Resources director, told the two committees last week.

Some state workers have begun prefunding retiree health care. The Highway Patrol contributes 3.9 percent of pay with a state match of 2 percent of pay. Two other small bargaining units contribute 0.5 percent of pay with no state match.

For the state, prefunding would be spending to save. Costs go up for years before investment earnings begin reducing annual expenses. The California Public Employees Retirement System, for example, expects investments to cover two-thirds of its pensions.

For new hires, in addition to sharing the normal cost the budget calls for bargaining longer service to become eligible for retiree health care and limiting state premium payments to the amount received while on the job.

Ten years of service is needed for state workers to be eligible for retiree health care, beginning at 50 percent coverage and increasing to 100 percent after 20 years. The proposed budget pushes back the thresholds to 15 and 25 years.

For current retirees, the low-cost health plan could indirectly be their contribution to containing state costs, if the number of state workers choosing the option is large enough to lower the four-plan average that sets their premium payment.

The low-cost health plan apparently would not be bargained. Legislation would direct CalPERS to begin offering the option among the health plans from which state workers can choose.

The low-cost health plan is similar to Brown’s proposal for a “hybrid” pension, combining a smaller pension with a 401(k)-style plan. It was rejected by the Legislature in 2012 when most of the governor’s 12-point pension reform was approved.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Originally published by Calpensions.com. Click here to read more stories.

The Glass Jaw of Pension Funds is Asset Bubbles

“CalPERS argued that the California constitution’s guarantee of contracts shielded pensions from cuts in bankruptcy. The fund also asserted sovereign immunity and police powers as an ‘arm of the state,’ including a lien on municipal assets.”

–  Wall Street Journal Editorial, “Calpers Gets Schooled,” February 8, 2015

If you want powerful evidence of crony capitalism at its worst, look no further. In the Stockton bankruptcy trial, the pension fund serving that city’s employees threatened to seize municipal assets to pay pension fund contributions. They’ve made similar threats to other cities that protest against the escalating contribution rates. And they’ve made the cost to exit pension plans confiscatory. It is hard to imagine a bigger or more blatant example of collusion between business interests and government employees at the expense of ordinary private citizens.

In the Stockton bankruptcy case, judge Christopher Klein’s ruling left pensions untouched, but at least the judge was openly disgusted with CalPERS, stating “CalPERS has bullied its way about in this case with an iron fist insisting that it and the municipal pensions it services are inviolable. The bully may have an iron fist, but it also turns out to have a glass jaw” (ref. San Jose Mercury Editorial, February 18, 2015.

Much has been made of the CalPERS’ “glass jaw,” referring to Klein’s contention that cities do have the legal right in bankruptcy to reduce pensions – even though he did not allow pension benefit reductions in this case. But there is another “glass jaw” facing CalPERS and all pension funds, the biggest “glass jaw” of all. They rely on annual returns of 7.5% per year to stay solvent, and as a result, sooner or later, the investment markets are going to deliver these funds a knockout punch.

Professional investors claim they can always beat returns of 7.5% per year, and many of them can. But public sector pension funds control over $4.0 trillion in assets, which makes them too big to beat the market. And the idea, courtesy of pension fund managers, that the investment market can deliver a long-term average return of 7.5% per year implies that 7.5% per year is a “risk free” rate.

For a quick reality check, here are the “risk free” rates of return currently available to investors in the United States:

Even in the cases where cities failed to make some of their annual pension payments, the financial impact was trivial compared to the primary cause of insolvency, which is that pension funds are not required to make “risk free” investments that are actually risk free. Because if they did, they would project low single digit annual rates of return instead of high single digit annual rates of return. It’s that simple.

A little over one year ago, the California Policy Center released a study “Are Annual Contributions Into CalSTRS Adequate?,” which utilized formulas provided by Moody’s investor services for that purpose. Using those formulas, the following table shows how lower rates of return impact CalSTRS:

Impact of Lower Rates of Return on CalSTRS
Based on 6-30-2012 Financial Statements, $ = Billions

CalSTRS chart

Just in case this is all merely abstruse gobbledegook that savvy political consultants recommend politicians avoid since nobody understands it anyway, pay particular attention to the columns on the far left and far right. The left column’s top row shows the official rate of return used by CalSTRS, 7.5%, and the right column’s top row shows how much they should contribute each year based on that official rate of return. Never mind that CalSTRS, like nearly all pension systems, uses creative accounting to avoid making an adequate payment to reduce their unfunded liability. In FYE 6-30-2012, for example, CalSTRS only made an unfunded contribution of $1.1 billion, not $7.0 billion (column five, top row) which would have represented a responsible payment against their unfunded liability.

It’s worth noting that for CalPERS, we can’t even get data on how they break out their normal contributions and their unfunded contributions because doing so would require sifting through the financials of every one of their participating entities. But there is nothing uniquely troubling about CalSTRS. As calculated in a more recent California Policy Center study, released last week “California City Pension Burdens,” in 2014 all state and local government pension funds in California, on average, were only 75% funded.

Imagine what would happen if CalSTRS had to pay $25 billion per year (column six, row five), instead of what they actually paid in 2012, $5.8 billion? Replicate these methods with nearly any pension fund in California, and you will almost always get similar results. And anyone who thinks a rate of return of 3.5% (column one, row five) is overly pessimistic should refer to the actual “risk free” rates of return shown in the previous bullet points. Better yet, consider this:  The federal funds lending rate today, the amount the federal reserve charges to banks, is 0.25% – that’s one-quarter of one percent. This is free money. That money is essentially being given to banks rates to turn around and loan at very low rates to corporations and consumers who use the cheap credit to buy things which, temporarily, stimulates the economy which causes asset values to rise – we are repeating 2008 all over again.

Pension funds depend on continuously expanding debt fueled asset bubbles for solvency. That is how they earn high returns that are anything but “risk free.” That is their glass jaw. Hopefully, when the bubbles pop and the glass jaws shatter, as an “arm of the state,” with “police powers,” CalPERS, CalSTRS, and every other pension fund in California won’t seize every municipal asset we’ve got and impose genuinely punitive taxes, so they can keep on paying those benefits.

*   *   *

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