Affordable Tuition vs. Gargantuan Pensions for Unionized Faculty

Californians have abysmally low levels of civic engagement as evidenced by the recent election where voter turnout set an historic low.  And the widespread disengagement of California’s younger voters is even worse.

True, in 2008 California’s youth turned out in large numbers to elect Barack Obama as President.  And in 2012 they turned out again because, in addition to Obama being up for reelection, Proposition 30 was on the ballot.  Proposition 30, which gave California the highest income tax rate and highest state sales tax rate in America was, ironically, entitled Temporary Taxes to Fund Education.

During the Proposition 30 campaign, Governor Brown traveled to several university campuses to push the massive tax hike promising that passage would prevent tuition hikes. California’s college students, being as gullible as they are idealistic, believed the promise hook, line and sinker.  So much for critical thinking.

But perhaps California’s younger voters are finally getting wise to all the broken promises of tax-and-spend politicians and that might explain, in part, why they stayed home in this last election.  And sure enough, their increasing cynicism is proving to be well founded.

Despite the massive tax hikes ostensibly to keep higher education affordable, the University of California Board of Regents just announced a sizable increase in tuition.  And UC students are none too happy.

Turns out that the driving force behind these hikes is the growing unfunded liability of UC’s pension fund and other items of questionable compensation.  Allysia Finley with the Wall Street Journal explains:  “UCs this year needed to spend an additional $73 million on pensions, $30 million on faculty bonuses, $24 million on health benefits and $16 million on collectively bargained pay increases. The regents project that they will require $250 million more next year to finance increased compensation and benefit costs.”

Moreover, Finley reveals the extraordinary level of waste in the UC system:  “Ms. Napolitano [President of the University of California] says that the UCs have cut their budgets to the bone, yet her own office includes nearly 2,000 employees—a quarter of whom make six-figure salaries. An associate vice president of federal government relations earns $273,375 a year, plus $55,857 in retirement and health benefits, according to the state controller’s office.  Thirty professors at UC Santa Cruz rake in more than $200,000 in pay, and most faculty can retire at 60 and receive a pension equal to 75% of their final salary. More than 2,100 retirees in the university retirement system collected six-figure pensions in 2011.”

At the moment, the outrage expressed by students in their protests – one of which resulted in a shattered glass door outside a meeting of the UC Regents – seems a bit unfocused.  They’re angry but, aside from the mere fact that their education costs are rising, many are not clear about the causes.

In a weird way, UC’s pension crisis might be the ultimate teachable moment for college students who typically have little grasp of anything related to public finance.

So, students, here’s the scoop:  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.  Public employee compensation is expensive; especially pension costs that you will be paying long after those of us who are older are long gone.  Government waste, fraud and abuse in California is a real problem.  Those who pay taxes – a lot of taxes – have choices where to live and move their businesses – and that may not be in California.  Debt means future costs.  You might like the idea of High Speed Rail but you might want to study both the costs and viability of any megaproject before you hop on board.

And finally, don’t buy into any promise by any politician about what they are going to do for you without first figuring out what they are going to do to you.

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.

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