Rhetoric to Challenge California’s Statist Elites

California’s ruling elites have enacted policies that make it impossible for middle class citizens to live here. They have artificially elevated the cost of living, nearly destroyed public education, decimated public services, neglected public infrastructure, and declared war on small business. To deflect criticism, they’ve convinced a critical mass of voters that any attempts to roll back these abominable policies are being engineered by racist, sexist plutocrats, and their willing puppets in the Republican party.

Exposing this diabolical, conniving scam won’t be easy. The ruling elites are a powerful coalition, comprised of left wing oligarchs including most of Silicon Valley’s billionaires, California’s public sector unions armed with the billion dollars (or more) they collect every year in forced dues, and the environmentalist lobby and their powerful trial lawyer cohorts.

Defeating California’s ruling elite requires a new coalition, comprised of the private sector middle class, enlightened members of the public sector middle class, and members of disadvantaged communities that aspire to the middle class. Attracting members of these communities, especially California’s Latinos, Asians, and African Americans, requires convincing them that current policies actually harm their interests.

To do this, there are two moral arguments the elites make that have to be debunked, because they underlie all of the intrusive, statist policies that are destroying California’s middle class. The first is the argument that capitalism is inherently evil and must be strictly curbed if not completely replaced by socialism. The second is the argument that unprecedented sacrifices must be made in order to save the planet from an environmental catastrophe.

Corrupt Capitalism vs Competitive Capitalism

Here are examples of two very different ways to critique wealth. In each example, the first phrase is employed by the ruling elites. It feeds on resentment and ignorance. The second phrase is offered as a counter argument. It appeals to the aspiring middle class family, or the small businessperson. It is designed to extol the positive virtues of capitalism and expose the opportunistic cynicism of the statist elites.

(1) “Tax the corporations” vs “make corporations compete.”

(2) “Capitalism is inherently evil” vs “no economic system in history has delivered more individual freedom and prosperity.”

(3) “Wealth is usually the result of privilege” vs “Wealth is usually the result of hard work in a free society.”

(4) “Government needs to regulate corporations” vs “corrupt corporations use regulations to destroy their smaller competitors.”

(5) “We have to redistribute wealth so people can afford to live” vs “we have to nurture capitalist competition to lower the cost of living.”

These arguments shine a spotlight on the great con job promulgated by the elites: The ruling class does not care about you, but we do. Because like you, we have to try to make payments on a half-million or even a million dollar mortgage, just to own a small house. Like you, we have to pay more for gasoline and electricity than any other citizens in any other state in America. Like you, we have to send our children to failing K-12 schools, then sink further into debt to pay tuition for them to attend colleges and universities where they don’t get a good education.

Extreme Environmentalism vs Practical Environmentalism

Apart from the distraction of race and gender, environmentalism provides the moral argument used as cover for policies that have imposed a punitive cost of living on Californians. It is important to make the distinction between attacks that discredit environmentalism in its entirety, and environmentalist reform that exposes the hidden agendas and inherent futility of California’s extremist environmental policies. Here are examples of two very different ways to apply environmentalist values.

(1) “Stop urban sprawl” vs “California has 163,000 square miles of land and is nearly empty, adding 10 million more people on quarter acre lots (even including new roads and new commercial/industrial centers) would consume less than 2,000 square miles!”

(2) “People need to live in multi-family dwellings” vs “detached single family homes are cheaper per unit to build than multi-family dwellings, and are more popular among buyers.”

(3) “There isn’t enough water for people to have detached homes and yards” vs “for less than $20 billion, we could build enough desalination capacity to provide water to every home and business in Los Angeles County; farming consumes 80% of all water diversions in California, we are exporting water intensive crops like alfalfa, grown using massively subsidized water, in the Imperial Valley (desert)!”

(4) “The government needs to discourage further development of fossil fuels such as clean natural gas” vs “Californians are paying as much as ten times what energy consumers pay for electricity in low cost states, and that California’s CO2 emissions are a minute fraction of those from other nations such as China and India.”

(5) “We have to get people out of their cars and build passenger rail” vs “cars, trucks and buses offer far more convenience and versatility, and are on the verge of becoming 100% clean and sustainable modes of transportation.”

(6) “No new mines and quarries should be allowed within California, and existing ones should be phased out” vs “developing in-state natural resources creates in-state jobs and costs less than importing materials from elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.”

When the elites demand “environmental justice” for people of color, ask them (using the San Francisco Bay Area as an example) what any of that has to do with why we can’t build homes on the eastern slopes of the Mt. Hamilton Range, or in San Jose’s Coyote Valley, or along the I-280 corridor in the Santa Cruz mountains. Ask them why they’re paying 60% of their income for rent or a mortgage, when California has 163,000 square miles of land and is nearly empty. Ask why money that is being spent on high speed rail, using imported materials, isn’t instead being used to create high paying jobs in road and infrastructure projects that will actually improve lives. Ask why thousands of people aren’t working in high paying jobs in mining and quarrying, so building materials can cost less.

For aggressive reformers, good questions are plentiful. What have California’s elites done for working families? Have they gotten you better jobs? Have they nurtured robust and competitive housing markets to lower the price of a home? Have they widened the freeways? Have they enabled competition to drive down the cost-of-living? Have they made your communities safe and prosperous and affordable? Have they done anything other than bribe your so-called leaders with campaign contributions so they’ll do what they’re told?

It comes down to this: These purported spokespersons for true environmentalist values have become personally successful by fomenting environmentalist panic, but they do not represent the best interests of ordinary Californians, and they do not articulate a realistic or practical vision of environmentalism.

California’s elite has declared war on the working class. They have used race as a distraction, and extreme environmentalism as the phony moral justification for their self-serving policies. They must be exposed.

The Moral High Ground

This fact – that the rhetoric of California’s elite does not translate into a better quality of life for the people they govern – is the core moral argument against current policies. Across virtually every issue, the policies of the elites are failing ordinary Californians. Pouring money into public schools has not helped students. Raising taxes has not improved services. Expanding college curricula that replace academic rigor with what amounts to political indoctrination has not improved employment opportunities for graduates. And creating artificial scarcity in the name of saving the planet has not helped the planet, but it has impoverished millions of California’s most economically vulnerable residents.

In claiming the moral high ground, reformers can use the same rhetoric the elites have employed for decades, and by doing so will find the elites have already done much of their work for them. The seditious goal of making California friendlier to small businesses, with more affordable housing, more affordable energy, better jobs and better schools is furthered by reminding Californians what the elites have done. They have engaged in one of the biggest cons of all time, enriching themselves at the expense of the average worker.

Once the issues of race and environmentalism are exposed as overstated issues, overemphasized in order to manipulate the electorate, then the resentment the elites have inculcated in their constituents can be turned against them.

Pro-growth policies don’t have to rely on terminology that has been tainted by the status-quo elites. “Free market,” “Libertarian,” “Conservative,” “Classical liberal,” etc. have seductive appeal for many ideologically driven reformers, but they have limited value in California politics. Reformers have to supplement their vocabulary, borrowing more from the left than from the right. The values and slogans that the ruling class has invested decades in inculcating in the minds of Californians can be used against them, because these elites have engaged in rank hypocrisy. Terms such as “social justice” and “equity” now have tremendous value to reformers, because reform policies will further those goals, whereas the policies implemented by California’s elite have condemned ordinary people to poverty.

Examples of using terms popular with the left to advance reformer causes:
Social justice – charter schools, teacher accountability
Civil Rights – the right to a quality education in a school chosen by parents
Equity – competitive land development to create affordable housing
Micro-aggression – countless taxes, hidden taxes, fees and regulations
Fairness – prices for energy and water competitive with other states
Progressive – pension benefits with lower percentage formulas for highly paid public employees
Diversity – college curricula that embrace conservative as well as liberal values
Anti-Discrimination – merit based, color blind criteria for hiring and college admissions

A pragmatic, centrist ideology that co-opts the rhetoric of the status-quo elites to attack the ruling class can resist being pigeonholed as left or right, or conservative or socialist. We are pragmatists. We are pro-growth, pro-job Californians and our policies will lead to prosperity, affordable housing, affordable utilities, affordable education, and social justice and equity for all Californians, and not just the elites.

The Government Union War on Meritocracy

How can you persuasively counter arguments for diversity quotas, when implacable fanatics purporting to represent every identifiable group whose aggregate achievements fall short of the mean will argue it is discrimination, not merit, that determine outcomes? Expect no help from government unions. Resentment gives them passion, restitution gives them power. Undermining the meritocracy is key to their survival.

Imagine a public school system where the excellence of teachers was the only institutional criteria for their job security and prospects for career advancement. Imagine government bureaucracies where innovative, more effective practices were adopted even if it meant smaller budgets and fewer employees. Imagine law enforcement agencies that had zero tolerance for officers that abused their authority. Are we there yet? Not if government unions have anything to say about it.

But the government union war on the meritocracy goes well beyond protecting bad employees. Government unions representing K-12 teachers and college faculty have been overran by “social justice warriors” who preach identity politics as the new religious gospel and the new academic canon. They have taken their war on the meritocracy into the classrooms and lecture halls, saturating the curricula from kindergarten to graduate school. Their message? Unless you are a heterosexual white male, you are a victim of discrimination by heterosexual white males. You live in an unjust society. Merit, according to this doctrine, is a smokescreen. It is discrimination in disguise.

What do you do if you believe in meritocracy? What do you do about this?

Math SAT Scoring Distribution by Ethnicity – 2015

If you want to earn more money in a merit-based, productive market economy, quantitative reasoning skills are required. The more of these skills you’ve got, the more money you’ll earn. So what happens when you have far, far higher percentages of highly qualified individuals in some groups than in other groups?

When it comes to college admissions and college curricula, the solution of the social justice warriors, and the faculty unions who nurture them, is many faceted. Here are some of their mitigating strategies:

  • Invent “holistic” admission criteria that diminishes the importance of quantitative aptitude.
  • Concoct theories of cognition that claim math itself is an arbitrary and subjective expression of white power (yes, this really happened).
  • Create entire college departments that are academically weak but instead offer separatist political indoctrination.
  • Blame most if not all of the gap in aptitude on systemic discrimination by the “white patriarchy.”
  • Demand race-driven quotas of ever-expanding scope; in hiring, promotions, housing, wealth, political office, whatever.

The problem with these solutions, if you want to call them that, are their actual consequences. In pursuit of quota driven diversity, colleges are turning away qualified applicants at the same time as colleges are failing to produce anywhere near the number of STEM graduates that American industry demands. Meanwhile, the students that are waved in despite being marginally qualified to pursue higher education are being trained to ascribe any failures they may encounter to racism, and any successes they may encounter to fortuitous state intervention. And not least, there is the consequence of bitterness and cynicism being bred into the psyche of all those more qualified students and future employees who are passed over in favor of meeting diversity quotas.

How does one challenge the doctrine of equality over merit? How do you challenge allegations of systemic racism? How do you do it persuasively, with hard facts, but also with compassion and empathy? It’s not easy. College youth need passion, they need a cause, they need clarifying polarities. The teachers unions offer them a good one: A rich and wealthy white patriarchy that has exploited people of color for centuries, one that must be resisted, uprooted, and replaced.

Tough love arguments should be part of any campaign of persuasion. Reality therapy. Why are people with lower test scores admitted to college if they’re being discriminated against? That’s ridiculous. And why do they think taking classes that replace difficult coursework with political indoctrination – fomenting resentment and advocating separatism – are going to give them marketable skills? Do they really believe they need on-campus “cultural safe spaces”? Aren’t those just a 21st century version of Jim Crow laws? Where does this end? And why do Asians perform so well on college aptitude tests? Why are Asians so successful economically? Aren’t they also “people of color”? Could it be because they study so diligently, and that a meritocracy is colorblind?

Along with tough love, opponents of quotas should offer understanding. It is our individuality that defines our abilities and challenges much more than the groups we’re a part of. All ethnic groups are collections of individuals with infinite diversity; short and tall, thin and obese, weak and strong, plain and beautiful, slow and smart, timid and assertive, surly and charming, lucky and unlucky, good and bad. As individuals we succeed and we fail. We endure crushing disappointments and spectacular success. Life is not always easy or fair – for anyone. We are joined by our common humanity, no matter what color we are. And nothing overcomes prejudice, should it ever exist, better than a smile.

Despite occasional rhetorical acknowledgments, government unions don’t like the message of individual accountability. But that is the message that must prevail, if we are to avoid the tyranny of quota-driven equality of outcome.

REFERENCES

Race gaps in SAT math scores are as big as ever – Brookings Institution (source for chart)
https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/02/01/race-gaps-in-sat-math-scores-are-as-big-as-ever/

How Public Sector Unions Exploit Identity Politics

As the ethnic composition of America changes from mostly white to a kaleidoscope of color within a generation, there is no better way to fracture society than to teach everyone to resent everyone else. Nurturing tribal resentment is a winning strategy for government unions, because a swollen, authoritarian, unionized government becomes the referee. Government union power increases every time another “person of color” becomes convinced that only government redistribution and racial quotas can mitigate their persecution at the hands of a racist white “patriarchy.”

When society fractures, when we face increasing unrest and poverty, government unions win. It is inherently in the interests of government unions for society to fail. If public education fails, hire more teachers and education bureaucrats. If crime goes up, hire more police and build more prisons. If immigrants fail to assimilate, hire more multilingual bureaucrats and social workers. If poverty increases, hire more welfare administrators.

If you don’t think this strategy can work, come to California, America’s most multi-ethnic state, and a place where government unions wield absolute power. Their wholly owned subsidiary, the Democratic party in California, has spent the last 20+ years perfecting the art of convincing the electorate that Republicans are racists. The strategy has been devastatingly effective, especially with people of color.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, among California’s “likely voters,” slightly more Whites remain registered as Republicans, 39%, than Democrats, 38%. Among Latinos the registered Democrats, 62%, far outnumber Republicans, 17%, and among Blacks the disparity is even greater, 82% Democrat vs. 6% Republican. Among Asians, where the disparity is less, the Democrats still have a nearly two-to-one advantage, 45% to 24%.

All of this racial perseverating comes at tragic cost. Among the fifty states, California has the highest taxes, the highest state and local government debt, the most welfare recipients, the most people living in poverty, and the highest cost-of-living. The roads and bridges are crumbling, and the water and energy infrastructure hasn’t been significantly upgraded in 30 years. But purveyors of identity politics have a strategy that earns votes, so why engage in actual governance? It’s all about race, stupid. Hire more bureaucrats.

The worst consequence of choosing identity politics over actual governance is the slow but relentless destruction of California’s once great system of public education. There has been negligible improvement in educational achievement for members of California’s disadvantaged, despite decades of political control by public sector union funded Democrats who pander incessantly to the voter’s lowest common denominator of resentment, race. Rather than admit that failures of culture, community, and public education are the real reasons some ethnic groups underachieve, the Democrats that run Sacramento attribute every disparity in outcome among races to the pervasiveness of racism. Their solution? Quotas.

Here is an interesting comparison to prove that quotas are being used to discriminate against California’s “privileged” youth. All data is for 2017. The first column shows what percentage of students taking the SAT, by ethnicity, achieved a score at or above the minimum to be considered “college ready.” The second column shows the ethnic breakdown of college age students in California. Column three uses a factor calculated from columns one and two, for each ethnicity, the percent of college ready students is multiplied by that ethnicity’s percent of the total pool of college age Californians. Each factor is then divided by the sum of all four factors, to calculate a crude but significant indicator of what percentage of 2017 college admissions would be offered to students of each ethnicity, if admissions were based on merit as expressed by SAT scores. Column four shows the actual admissions to California’s UC System in 2017 by ethnicity.

California’s UC System – 2017 Admissions – Actual vs. SAT Based

There are a few obvious takeaways from the above chart. Most salient is the fact that white applicants, if SAT scores were the sole basis for admission, are clear victims of discrimination. After all, if based on their college readiness as assessed by their SAT performance combined with their percentage of the population, they should have earned 43% of the admissions to the UC System, why did they only represent 23% of the incoming freshmen in 2017? But there are other disparities that point to an even bigger problem.

Why, for example, do actual Asian admissions, 34%, exceed the merit based admissions percentage, 21%, as indicated based on their percentage of the college age population and the percentage of them achieving the SAT benchmark? Why, for that matter, are the actual Latino admissions, 33%, slightly less than the amount they would theoretically earn, 35%, based that same criteria? The answer in both cases is the same, and can be best summarized in this quote taken from a report released earlier this year by the Brookings Institution:

“Race gaps on the SATs are especially pronounced at the tails of the distribution. In a perfectly equal distribution, the racial breakdown of scores at every point in the distribution would mirror the composition of test-takers as whole i.e. 51 percent white, 21 percent Latino, 14 percent black, and 14 percent Asian. But in fact, among top scorers—those scoring between a 750 and 800—60 percent are Asian and 33 percent are white, compared to 5 percent Latino and 2 percent black. Meanwhile, among those scoring between 300 and 350, 37 percent are Latino, 35 percent are black, 21 percent are white, and 6 percent are Asian.”

What this means in plain English is that in the UC System, where supposedly only the most elite high school graduates are granted admission, you will find the distribution of the higher SAT scores by ethnicity skewed even more in favor of Asian and White students than you find when evaluating how many students merely achieve the “benchmark” SAT score. This is why Asian admissions, which are arguably the only UC admissions in 2017 that were based truly on merit, skew higher than you would otherwise expect. That is also the reason that Latino admissions skew somewhat lower. And it also indicates that White applicants are discriminated against even more than shown on the table.

Such is the landscape of California’s public system of higher education, considered among the best in the world.

To further investigate this evidence, I talked someone who spent over a decade serving on the Board of Regents at the University of California. They did not mince words. Here are a few of the things they had to say:

– SAT scores have become less important because the university has gone to “holistic admissions” instead of SAT based admissions – the SAT is also watered down with a subjective 3rd “essay” section. The subjectivity of the admissions criteria makes it harder to prove discrimination.

– For years now, the UC System has diversified the faculty by taking more professors to fill positions in African American and Latino studies and shielded itself from discrimination because they can say the person hired had strength in the discipline they needed to fill.

– Ethnic studies departments are academically weak and don’t provide graduates with anything they can use. Most ethnic studies departments are growing because people are being hired and enrolled in order to fulfill de facto diversity quotas both for faculty and students. The alternative would be to destroy the integrity of the hard sciences with unqualified faculty and students.

– After the passage of Prop. 209, the admission of Asians rose to about 35% because you could not suppress their achievement without admitting you’re breaking the law. Latino and Black admissions track at 29% and 6%, respectively, more consistent with their percentage within California’s population. To accommodate the Asian over-enrollment and the Black and Latino quotas, qualified White applicants are the victims – Whites represented less than 25% of admissions to the UC system last year.

– California’s legislature is controlled by the Latino Caucus, which makes sure that 25% Latino admissions are maintained. Whites don’t go out and protest and make noise because that is politically incorrect and the media doesn’t report the data anyway.

Readers are invited to challenge the accuracy of any of the above statements, made by an informed observer. And what is the result of all this mediocrity that hides behind diversity, this discrimination that hides behind achieving quota-driven equality of outcome? A fracturing of society into identity groups, each of them, whether via propaganda or via reality, encouraged to harbor resentment towards every other group.

If one were to identify which of California’s public sector unions is the most guilty of fomenting racial disharmony, it would certainly be the ones representing K-12 public school teachers and the ones representing college faculty. Their outlook, which is reflected in their policies, their curricula, and only somewhat camouflaged on their websites, is to blame the academic achievement gap on anything but their own poor performance as the most influential determinant of educational policy in California. Blame the rich. Blame capitalism. Blame Western Civilization. Blame “white privilege.” Blame racist Republicans. But don’t look in the mirror.

A rising trope among these neo-racialist purveyors of separatist identity politics is that white people should engage in “allyship,” which to them means for well behaved white people to do whatever they’re told by the high priests of the disadvantaged, no matter how disingenuous or ridiculous. But a true ally would provide tough, genuine love, and tell the truth. Which is if you want to achieve in America, the most inclusive and tolerant nation in the history of the world, you have to work hard, stay sober, stay out of jail, keep your families intact, be thrifty, and hit the books.

That truth would unify and enrich this nation. And a unified and prosperous nation would mean less government, less government employees, and weaker public employee unions. We can’t have that now, can we?

REFERENCES

Race and voting in California: Public Policy Institute of California
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/jtf/JTF_RaceandVotingJTF.pdf

Class of 2017 SAT Results, College Board
https://reports.collegeboard.org/sat-suite-program-results/class-2017-results

California Demographics by Age and Ethnicity – University of California
https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/infocenter/ca-demographics

Percentage of 2017 UC Admissions by Ethnicity – EdSource
https://edsource.org/2017/uc-admits-more-students-from-outside-california-but-officials-expect-more-state-residents-will-enroll/584321

Race gaps in SAT scores highlight inequality and hinder upward mobility – Brookings Institution
asdfasdfhttps://www.brookings.edu/research/race-gaps-in-sat-scores-highlight-inequality-and-hinder-upward-mobility/

Even With Affirmative Action, Blacks and Hispanics Are More Underrepresented at Top Colleges Than 35 Years Ago – New York Times
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/24/us/affirmative-action.html

Are We All Unconscious Racists? – City Journal
https://www.city-journal.org/html/are-we-all-unconscious-racists-15487.html

Without Government Unions, there Would be No Gas Tax Increase

Nobody argues that California’s roads need huge upgrades. But the solution didn’t require the $0.12 per gallon tax hike that goes into effect today. The root cause of these neglected roads – and the reason even more taxes will never be enough to fix them – is the power of public sector unions, whose agenda is consistently at odds with the public interest. Let us count the ways.

1 – CalTrans mismanagement:

CalTrans could have done a much better job of maintaining California’s roads. One of the most diligent critics (and auditors) of CalTrans is state Senator John Moorlach (R, Costa Mesa), the only CPA in California’s state legislature. Last year, Moorlach released a report on CalTrans which he summarized in “7-Step Fix for ‘Mismanaged’ Caltrans,” an article on his official website. Just a few highlights include the following:

  • In May 2014 the Legislative Analyst Office determined that CalTrans was overstaffed by 3,500 architects and engineers, costing over $500 million per year.
  • While to an average state transportation agency outsources over 50% of its work, CalTrans outsources only 10% of its work. Arizona and Florida outsource more than 80%.
  • 54% of CalTrans staff is at or near retirement age, so a hiring freeze would reduce staff merely through attrition, without requiring layoffs.

But Moorlach didn’t make explicit the reason CalTrans is mismanaged. It’s because the unions that run Sacramento don’t want to outsource CalTrans work. The unions don’t want to reduce CalTrans headcount, or hold CalTrans management accountable. Those actions might help Californians, but they would undermine union power.

2 – Bullet train boondoggle:

Money that could have been allocated to maintain and improve California’s roads is being squandered on a train that will do nothing to ameliorate California’s transportation challenges. A LOT of money. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, California’s freeways can be resurfaced and have a lane added in each direction at a cost of roughly $5.0 million per mile in rural areas, about twice that in urban areas.

Meanwhile, the latest estimate for California’s “bullet train,” is $98 billion (that’s $245 million per mile), thanks to construction delays, and design challenges including nearly 50 miles of tunnels through seismically active mountains to the north and south. And hardly anyone is going to ride it. Ridership won’t even pay operating costs. But Sacramento pushes ahead with this monstrous waste when that same money could (at the urban price of $10 million per mile) resurface and add a lane in each direction to 10,000 miles of California’s freeways. Imagine smooth, unclogged roads. It’s not impossible. It’s just policy priorities.

But while bad roads destroy the chassis of millions of cars and trucks, and commuters endure stop-and-go traffic year after year, the California High Speed Rail Authority dutifully pushes on. Why?

Because that’s what the government employee unions want. They don’t want roads, with all the flexibility and autonomy that roads offer. They want to create a gigantic high-speed rail empire, with tens of thousands of new public employees to drive the trains, maintain the trains, maintain the tracks, and provide security, running up staggering annual deficits. But all of them will be members of public sector unions.

3 – All rapid transit boondoggles:

In a handful of very dense urban areas around the U.S., fast intercity trains make economic sense. But most light rail schemes, along with laughably absurd “streetcar” schemes that actually block urban lanes sorely needed by vehicles, do not achieve levels of ridership that even begin to justify their construction when the alternative is using that money for better, wider connector roads and freeways. The impact of ride sharing apps, the advent of non-polluting cars, and the option of using buses to accomplish mass transit goals all speak to the superior versatility of roads over rail for urban transportation.

So why do California’s cities continue to poor billions into light rail and streetcars, when that money could be used to unclog the roads?

To reiterate: The public sector unions that run California want tens of thousands of new public employees to operate the trains and streetcars, maintain them, maintain the tracks, and provide security, running up staggering annual deficits. But doing this means that public sector union membership – hence public sector union power – will increase.

4 – CEQA reform so people can live closer to the jobs:

The median home value in the United States today is $202,700. The median home value in California today is $509,600, 2.5 times as much! There is no shortage of land in California, and the alleged shortages of energy and water are self-inflicted as the result of policies enacted by California’s state legislature. But instead of reforming California’s Environmental Quality Act, SB 375, AB 32, and countless other laws that have made building homes in California nearly impossible, California’s legislature is doubling down on more government solutions – primarily to subsidize either extremely high density housing, or subsidized housing for the economically disadvantaged, or both.

None of this is necessary. Outside of California’s major urban centers, there is no reason homes cannot be profitably built and sold at a median price of $202,700, and there is no reason the people living in those homes cannot drive or ride share to work on fast, unclogged freeways.

But California’s public sector unions want more regulations on home building, and they want more subsidized public housing. Because those solutions, even though inadequate and coercive, enable them to hire vast new bureaucracies to enforce the many regulations and administer the public assets. Unleashing the private sector to build affordable homes in a competitive market would rob these unions of their opportunity to acquire more power. It’s that simple.

5 – Insatiable appetite for pension fund contributions:

According to a California Policy Center study, taking barely adequate annual employer pension contributions into account, the average unionized state/local government worker in California makes over $120,000 per year in pay and benefits. But to adequately fund their promised pension benefits, employers will need to pay at least another $20,000 per employee to the pension funds. This funding gap, which equates to over $20 billion per year, is the additional amount that is required to cover the difference between how much California’s public employee pension funds currently collect from taxpayers, and how much they need to collect to keep the promises that union controlled politicians have made to the government unions they “negotiate” with. That is a best-case scenario.

It could be much worse. A 2016 California Policy Center analysis (ref. table 2-C) estimated that under a worst-case scenario, the annual costs to fund California’s public employee pension funds could cost taxpayers nearly $70 billion more per year than they are currently paying.

And by the way, California’s pension funds are themselves almost entirely under the control of public sector unions – research the background of CalPERS and CalSTRS board directors to verify the degree of influence they have. Absent significant reform, funding California’s public employee pensions is going to continue to consume every dollar in new taxes for the next several decades. The cumulative financial impact of funding these pensions is easily triple that of the bullet train’s $100 billion fiasco, probably much more.

Let’s be perfectly clear. Government unions control California. They collect and spend over $1.0 billion every year, and spend most of that money on either explicit political campaigning and lobbying, or soft advocacy via expensive public relations campaigns and sponsored academic studies. Their presence is felt everywhere, from local transit districts to the governor’s office. They make or break politicians at will, by outspending or outlasting their opponents. At best, California’s most powerful corporate players do not cross these unions, often they collude with them.

California’s public sector unions operate as senior partners in a coalition that includes left-wing oligarchs especially in the Silicon Valley, extreme environmentalists and their powerful trial lawyer cohorts, and the Latino Legislative Caucus – usurped by leftist radicals – and their many allies in the social justice/identity politics industry. The power of this government union led coalition is nearly absolute, and the consequences to California’s private sector working class have been nothing short of devastating.

Government unions force California’s agencies to over-hire, overpay, and mismanage, because that benefits their members even as it harms the public. These unions enforce absurd policy priorities that further harm the public in order to increase their power. They are the reason California has increased its gas tax.

REFERENCES

Pump bump: California drivers to pay 12 cents more per gallon starting Wednesday – San Jose Mercury, Oct. 31, 2017
http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/10/31/pump-bump-california-drivers-to-pay-12-cents-more-per-gallon-starting-wednesday/

California’s gas tax increases Wednesday – Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2017
http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-gas-tax-increase-political-battle-20171031-story.html

How much you’ll REALLY pay in gasoline tax in California – San Diego Union Tribune, Apr. 23, 2017
http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/energy-green/sd-fi-california-gastax-20170413-story.html

What Californians Could Build Using the $64 Billion Bullet Train Budget – California Policy Center, Mar. 21, 2017
http://californiapolicycenter.org/what-californians-could-build-using-the-64-billion-bullet-train-budget/

American Road and Transportation Builders Association – FAQs, ref. “How much does it cost to build a mile of road?
https://www.artba.org/about/faq/

High-Speed Rail Delay More than Triples Planned Cost to San Jose – San Jose Inside, Oct. 2, 2017
http://www.sanjoseinside.com/2017/10/02/high-speed-rail-delay-more-than-triples-planned-cost-to-san-jose/

A 13.5-mile tunnel will make or break California’s bullet train – Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21, 2017
http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-bullet-train-tunnel-20171021-story.html

California Environmental Quality Act – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Environmental_Quality_Act

State Senate bills aim to make homes more affordable, but they won’t spur nearly enough construction – Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11, 2017
http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-state-housing-deal-effects-20170811-htmlstory.html

California’s Public Sector Compensation Trends – California Policy Center, Jan. 2017
http://californiapolicycenter.org/californias-public-sector-compensation-trends/

What is the Average Pension for a Retired Government Worker in California? – California Policy Center, Mar. 2017
http://californiapolicycenter.org/what-is-the-average-pension-for-a-retired-government-worker-in-california/

The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It – California Policy Center, May 2016
http://californiapolicycenter.org/the-coming-public-pension-apocalypse/

 

Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?

How would you feel if someone told you they’d just increased your retirement benefit by 50%, took five years off the age you’d have to be when you could retire and collect this benefit, and then told you there would be almost no additional cost because the stock market was roaring? In California, that’s what happened in December 1999. “You” were “ALL PUBLIC AGENCIES,” and their countless thousands of public employees, and “someone” was the biggest public employee retirement system in the state, CalPERS. Click here to read the agency’s 12/23/1999 analysis.

Then how would you like it, two years later, after the market had “corrected,” you were told, via a CalPERS board resolution, that an “exception” had been made to generally accepted actuarial accounting standards, and you could choose to value your savings that had been set aside to pay for your retirement benefits at a value 10% greater than the actual market value of those assets at the time? That’s what happened in June 2001. Click here to read that 6/06/2001 letter.

Did CalPERS comply with the law when they did this?

Today, we’re left to wonder whether those actions violated state law. California Government Code Section 7507 requires that an enrolled actuary notify elected officials of the actual costs of any benefit increase.

Here is an excerpt from Section 7507:

The Legislature and local legislative bodies shall secure the services of an enrolled actuary to provide a statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs before authorizing increases in public retirement plan benefits. An “enrolled actuary” means an actuary enrolled under subtitle C of Title III of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 and “future annual costs” shall include, but not be limited to, annual dollar increases or the total dollar increases involved when available.

The California Policy Center recently re-released a policy brief entitled “Did Your Agency Comply with the Law When Increasing Pension Formulas?” That policy brief provides clear instructions to any local elected official or local activist who would like to gather and view for themselves possible evidence of 7507 violations in their city or county.

The stakes are high. Senate Bill 400, enacted in 1999, increased pension benefit formulas by roughly 50 percent for California Highway Patrol officers. Over the next five years or so, nearly every state agency, city, and county in California followed suit, not only for their police and firefighters, but for all public employees regardless of their job description. The ongoing financial impact of this on civic budgets has been severe, and there is no end in sight.

Back in 1999, pension expenses as a percent of total operating budgets in California averaged around 3 percent. Today they average over 11 percent. Depending on how fast agencies are required to pay down the unfunded liabilities on their pension obligations, and depending on how pension investments perform over the next several years, pension expenses as a percent of total operating budgets in California could rise to over 30 percent.

With rare and incremental exceptions, all attempts so far to reform pensions – and so restore financial sustainability and robust services to California’s public agencies – have been thwarted. Reformers continue to challenge these special interests in court, but progress has been slow and expensive, with no rulings of any significance.

Did CalPERS comply with the law when they offered their agency clients the option to greatly increase pension benefits? Did they comply with California Government Code Section 7507?

Using Pacific Grove as an example of CalPERS’ followup, here’s the “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis – Valuation Basis: June 30, 2000,” in which a CalPERS actuary presented to Pacific Grove’s elected officials three distinct values for the assets they had invested with CalPERS, and gave them the liberty to choose which one they’d like to use. The higher the value they chose for their existing assets, the lower the cost from CalPERS to pay for the benefit enhancements they were contemplating.

Option 1: “No increase in actuarial value of pension fund assets.”

Option 2: “Actuarial value of assets increased by twice the increase in the present value of benefits due to this amendment, limited to 100% of market value of assets.”

Option 3: “Actuarial value of assets increased by twice the increase in the present value of benefits due to the amendment, limited to 110% of market value of assets.”

In plain English, the CalPERS actuary is inviting the elected officials to pick from three differing calculations of how much money they’ve already set aside to cover future retirement payments. The difference between “actuarial value of assets” and “market value of assets” is what creates this wiggle room. While the pension fund investments may have a well-defined market value at any point in time, in order to avoid having to continually adjust how much needs to be contributed into the fund by the employers each year, a “smoothing” calculation is applied that takes into account the market values in previous years.

Obviously, based on the above three choices, how assets get “smoothed” is a subjective exercise. Otherwise there would only be one option. So guess which option was chosen by the City of Pacific Grove? Evaluating the table on page 4 of the 6/30/2000 CalPERS cost analysis provides hints.

Option 1: Employer contribution will be 25.1% of payroll.

Option 2: Employer contribution will be 20.0% of payroll.

Option 3: Employer contribution will be 6.2% of payroll.

Pacific Grove selected option 3. Is that any surprise? Consider this absurdity: CalPERS left it up to these elected officials to enact their benefit enhancement, and then told them the cost to do so could vary by over 400 percent. Of course they picked the low payment option.

Did this disclosure comply with California Government Code Section 7507? Despite the presence of disclaimers dutifully included by CalPERS, arguably it did not. CalPERS offered Pacific Grove three alternative valuations for their pension fund investments, and then presented three very different payment requirements depending on which option they chose. The diligent reader will investigate these documents in vain for additional evidence that CalPERS offered Pacific Grove – or any of its other participating agencies – a usable “statement of the actuarial impact upon future annual costs.”

Even the actuary who wrote the analysis for Pacific Grove hedged his bets. In the “Certification” section on page 5, the actuary wrote, “The valuation has been prepared in accordance with generally accepted actuarial practice except that [italics added], under a CalPERS Board resolution, an increased actuarial value of assets may be substituted for the actuarial value of assets that would have been produced by the current and generally accepted actuarial asset smoothing method described in the annual report.”

What CalPERS did was to offer public agencies the option to “smooth” upwards the value of the assets they’d set aside to cover those enhanced retirement benefits they’d awarded during the stock market bubble. They persisted in these tactics to enable agencies that had not yet enhanced their benefits to do so, in order to “compete” with other agencies and retain employees.

Not only were these asset values smoothed, of course. The payments demanded each year by CalPERS were also smoothly increased. Smoothly and inexorably, with no end in sight.

REFERENCES

CalPERS notice to All Public Agencies, 12-23-1999 – “New 3% @ 55 and 3% @ 50 Formulas, and Change in Benefits Cap for Safety Members”
http://calocalelectedofficials.org/wp-content/uploads/CalPERS-December-23-1999-Letter-Regarding-3-at-50-to-Agencies.pdf

CalPERS notice to All Public Agencies, 6/06/2001 – “New CalPERS Board Resolution Concerning Value of Assets Used in Calculation of Cost of Contract Amendments”
http://calocalelectedofficials.org/wp-content/uploads/CalPERS-July-6-2001-Letter-to-Agencies.pdf

CalPERS analysis for City of Pacific Grove – “Contract Amendment Cost Analysis – Valuation Basis: June 30, 2000
http://calocalelectedofficials.org/wp-content/uploads/Pacific-Grove-CalPERS-3-at-50-Cost-Estimate.pdf

CLEO Policy Brief – “Did Your Agency Comply with the Law When Increasing Pension Formulas?”
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/determine-city-county-complied-law-increasing-pension-formulas/

California Senate Bill 400, enacted 1999
http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/99-00/bill/sen/sb_0351-0400/sb_400_bill_19990929_chaptered.html

CLEO Policy Brief – “Coping With the Pension Albatross” – provides links to sources for historical and projected escalation of pension costs as a percent of operating budgets
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/coping-pension-albatross/

How Can Local Officials Prepare for the Upcoming Janus vs AFSCME Ruling?

“A public employer shall provide all public employees an orientation and shall permit the exclusive representative, if applicable, to participate.”
– Excerpt from California State Assembly Bill AB 52, December 2016

In plain English, AB 52 requires every local government agency in California to bring union representatives into contact with every new hire, to “allow workers the opportunity to hear from their union about their contractual rights and benefits.” What’s this all about?

As explained by Adam Ashton, writing for the Sacramento Bee, “New California government workers will hear from union representatives almost as soon as they start their jobs under a state budget provision bolstering labor groups as they prepare for court decisions that may cut into their membership and revenue.”

Ashton is referring to the case set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court early next year, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. A ruling is expected by mid-year. It is possible, if not likely, that the ruling will change the rules governing public sector union membership. In pro-union states like California, public sector workers are required to pay “agency fees,” which constitute the vast majority of union revenue, even if they laboriously opt-out of paying that portion of union dues that are used explicitly for political campaigning and lobbying.

Needless to say, this law is designed to allow union representatives to get to newly hired public employees as soon as they walk in the door, in order to convince them to join the union and pay those dues. But can anyone argue against union membership?

The short answer is no. To deter such shenanigans, SB 285, thoughtfully introduced by Senator Atkins (D-San Diego), adds the following section to the Government Code: “A public employer shall not deter or discourage public employees from becoming or remaining members of an employee organization.” Governor Brown signed this legislation on October 9th. So much for equal time.

So what can local elected officials do, those among them who actually want to do their part to attenuate the torrent of taxpayer funded dues pouring into the coffers of public employee unions in California? Can they provide the contact information for public employees to outside groups who may be able to provide equal time?

Once again, the answer is no. To deter access even to the agency emails of public employees, a new law bans public agencies from releasing the personal email addresses of government workers, creating a new exemption in the California Public Records Act. Those email addresses could be used by union reformers to provide the facts to public employees. How this all became law provides another example of just how powerful public sector unions are in Sacramento.

In order to quickly get the primary provision of AB 52 enacted, which allows union representatives into new public employee orientations, along with a provision to deny public access to public employee emails, both were added at the last minute to the California Legislature’s 2017-2018 budget trailer bill, AB 119. The union access to new employee orientations is Article 1. The denial of email access is Article 2.

So how are the unions preparing for the Janus ruling? By (1) making sure the union operatives get to new employees as soon as they begin working, (2) by preventing agency employers from saying anything to deter new employees from joining the unions, and (3) by preventing anyone else from getting the official agency emails for new employees in order to inform them of their rights to not join a union. That’s a lot.

So what can you do, if union reformers control a majority on your agency board or city council, and you in a position to try to oppose these unions?

First, examine the legal opinions surrounding the wording of SB 285, “A public employer shall not deter or discourage public employees from becoming or remaining members of an employee organization.” The words “deter” and “discourage” do not in any way preclude providing facts. Consider this preliminary opinion posted on the website of the union-controlled Public Employee Relations Board:

“One major concern I have is that the terms “deter” and “discourage” are not defined. What if an employee comes to an employer with questions about what it means to be a member of the union, and the employer provides truthful responses. For example, assume that the employer confirms that being a member will mean paying dues. What if that has the effect of deterring or discouraging the employee from joining the union?”

It is possible for employers to present facts regarding union membership without violating the new law. Find out what disclosures remain permissible, and make sure new employees get the information.

Another step that can be taken, although probably not by local elected officials, is to challenge the new law that exempts public agency emails from public information act requests. And apart from accessing their work emails, there are other ways that outside groups can communicate with public employees to make sure they are aware of their rights.

California’s public employee unions collect and spend over $1.0 billion per year. If the Janus vs AFSCME ruling takes away the ability of government unions to compel payment of agency fees, and imposes annual opt-in requirements for both agency fees and political dues, these unions will collect less money. How much less will depend on courage and innovative thinking on the part of reformers who want to rescue California from unionized government.

REFERENCES

Get a state job and meet your labor rep: How state budget protects California unions, Sacramento Bee, June 21, 2017
http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/the-state-worker/article156146364.html

AB 52, Public employees: orientation and informational programs: exclusive representatives, California Legislature
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB52

Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Supreme Court of the United States Blog
http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/janus-v-american-federation-state-county-municipal-employees-council-31/

SB 285, Atkins. Public employers: union organizing, California Legislature
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB285

2017-2018 budget trailer bill, AB 119, California Legislature
https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180AB119

California Public Records Act, Office of the Attorney General
http://ag.ca.gov/publications/summary_public_records_act.pdf

Fact Sheet – AB 52 (Cooper) & SB 285 (Atkins), California Labor Federation
http://calaborfed.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/2-AB-52-Cooper-and-SB-285-Atkinsweb.pdf

Legislative Bulletin – California School Employees Association
http://www.csea.com/web/portals/0/csea_pdf/leg_rpt.pdf

SB 285: Public Employers Cannot Discourage Union Membership, Public Employee Relations Board
http://www.caperb.com/2017/04/04/sb-285-public-employers-cannot-discourage-union-membership/

Public employee unions wield hefty Atkins stick [SB 285], San Diego Reader
https://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2017/aug/28/ticker-public-employee-unions-wield-atkins-stick/#

Coping With the Pension Albatross

Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.
–  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1798

In Coleridge’s famous poem, a sailor who killed an albatross has it hung around his neck as punishment. Since then, the albatross, which sailors used to consider good luck, has come to symbolize an oppressive burden. When it comes to ensuring the financial sustainability of California’s cities and counties, few burdens have become more oppressive than funding employee pensions.

A study issued earlier this month entitled “Pension Math: Public Pension Spending and Service Crowd Out in California, 2003-2030,” by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, offers comprehensive and visceral proof of just how big the pension albatross has become around the fiscal necks of California’s cities and counties, and how much bigger it’s likely to grow. Recent articles by pension expert Ed Mendel and political watchdog Steve Greenhut provide excellent summaries. To distill the “Pension Math” study to a few ominous and definitive quotations, here are two that describe how dramatically pension costs have eaten into California’s civic budgets:

“Employer pension contributions from 2002-03 to 2017-18 have increased at a much faster rate than operating expenditures. As noted, pension contributions increased an average of 400%; operating expenditures grew 46%. As a result, pension contributions now consume on average 11.4% of all operating expenditures, more than three times their 3.9% share in 2002-03.”

And the fun is just beginning:

“The pension share of operating expenditures is projected to increase further by 2029-30: to 14.0% under the baseline projection—that is, even if all system assumptions, including assumed investment rates of return, are met—or to 17.5% under the alternative projection.”

Back in 2016, the California Policy Center produced a study entitled “The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It.” In that study (ref. Table 2-C), the implications of adopting responsible paydowns of the unfunded liability (20 year straight-line amortization which CalPERS is now recommending), are explored, along with various rate-of-return assumptions. Quote:

“A city that pays 10% of their total revenues into the pension funds, and there are plenty of them, at an ROI of 7.5% and an honest repayment plan for the unfunded liability, should be paying 17% of their revenues into the pension systems. At a ROI of 6.5%, these cities would pay 24% of their revenue to pensions. At 5.5%, 32%.”

These are staggering conclusions. Only a few years ago, opponents of pension reform disparaged reformers by repeatedly asserting that pension costs only consumed 3% of total operating expenses. Now those costs have tripled and quadrupled, and there is no end in sight. What can local elected officials do?

The short answer is not much. At least not yet. The city of Irvine provides a cautionary example of how a city did everything right, and still lost ground. In 2013, Irvine’s city council resolved to eliminate their unfunded pension liability in 10 years by making massive extra annual payments out of their reserve fund. As reported in detail last week in the article “How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances,” here is the upshot of what happened in Irvine between 2013 and 2017:

“While the stock market roared, and while Irvine massively overpaid on their unfunded liability, that unfunded liability still managed to increase by 51%.”

There are plenty of ways for California’s cities and counties to get the pension albatross off their fiscal necks, except for one thing. The people who receive these generous pensions (the average pension for a full-career retired public employee in California, not including benefits, was $68,673 in 2015) are the same people who, through their unions, exercise almost absolute control over California’s cities and counties.

Spokespersons for public sector unions scoff at this assertion. “Politicians are mismanaging our cities and counties,” they allege, “blame the politicians.” And of course they’re right. Politicians do run our cities and counties. But these politicians have their campaigns funded by the public sector unions. Even when a majority of city council or county supervisor seats are won by politicians willing to refuse campaign contributions from public sector unions, any reforms they enact are reversed as soon as the unions can reestablish a majority. And if reformers can stay in control of a city or county through multiple election cycles, any reforms they enact are relentlessly fought in court by the unions. Meanwhile, California’s union controlled state legislature enacts law after law designed to prohibit meaningful reform.

This is the reality we live in. Californians pay taxes in order to pay state and local government employees a wage and benefit package that averages twice what private sector workers earn.

Here’s what can be done:

(1) Convince citizens to always vote against any candidate supported by a public sector union.

(2) Convince public sector union officials that the pension crisis is real so at least they will agree to minor reforms. The recent Stanford study, along with the recently introduced CalPERS agency summaries, should provide convincing leverage.

(3) Continue to implement incremental reform either through council action, local ballot measures, or in contract negotiations. They may include:
– lower pension formulas for new employees
– lower base pay in order to lower final pension calculations
– eliminating binding arbitration
For more ideas, refer to Pension Reform – The San Jose Model, Pension Reform – The San Diego Model, and Reforming Binding Arbitration.

(4) Support policies designed to lower the cost-of-living. California’s union controlled legislature has created artificial scarcity in almost all sectors of the economy, driving prices up and providing the justification for public employees to demand wages and benefits that allow them to exempt themselves (but not the rest of us) from the consequences of those policies.

(5) Wait for resolution of two critical court cases. The first is the case Janus vs. AFSCME, challenging the right of government unions to charge “agency fees” to members who opt out of membership. That case is set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018. The second is the ongoing court challenges to the “California Rule.” Attorneys representing California’s government unions claim the California Rule prohibits changing the formulas governing pension benefit accruals even for work not yet performed. California’s Supreme Court is set to hear this case after an appeals court rules on three cases – from Alameda, Contra Costa, and Merced counties. Both of these cases should be resolved sometime in 2018.

The Janus case could decisively lower the amount of money public sector unions currently manage to extract from dues paying public employees, which in California alone is estimated to exceed $1.0 billion per year. A successful challenge to the California Rule would pave the way for real pension reform. Current legal interpretations of the California Constitution bar reductions to pension formulas, even for work that has not yet been performed. This is the so-called “California Rule.” If that interpretation were overturned, pension benefit accruals for future work done by existing employees could be lowered to financially sustainable levels.

All in all, today the pension albatross weighs heavy on the fiscal necks of California’s public agencies, and it’s getting worse, not better. If there were easy answers, the problem would have been solved long ago.

REFERENCES

Pension Math: Public Pension Spending and Service Crowd Out in California, 2003-2030
https://siepr.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/17-023.pdf

How pension costs reduce government services, Ed Mendel, CalPensions, 10/09/2017
https://calpensions.com/2017/10/09/how-pension-costs-reduce-government-services/

Forget the scary pension future; study confirms the crisis is hitting now, Steve Greenhut, California Policy Center, 10/10/2017
http://californiapolicycenter.org/forget-scary-pension-future-study-confirms-crisis-hitting-now/

The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It
http://californiapolicycenter.org/the-coming-public-pension-apocalypse/

How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/fraudulently-low-normal-contributions-wreak-havoc-civic-finances/

What is the Average Pension for a Retired Government Worker in California?
http://californiapolicycenter.org/what-is-the-average-pension-for-a-retired-government-worker-in-california/

California’s Public Sector Compensation Trends
http://californiapolicycenter.org/californias-public-sector-compensation-trends/

Average Full Career Pension by City (all CalPERS employers), Transparent California
http://transparentcalifornia.com/pensions/2016/calpers/employers/?s=-average

Public Agency Actuarial Valuation Reports by CalPERS Agency
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/page/employers/actuarial-services/employer-contributions/public-agency-actuarial-valuation-reports

Pension Reform – The San Jose Model
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/pension-reform-san-jose-model/

Pension Reform – The San Diego Model
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/pension-reform-the-san-diego-model/

Reforming Binding Arbitration
https://calocalelectedofficials.org/reforming-binding-arbitration/

Marin County Discloses Debt Balances on Property Tax Bills

How would you like it if every time you received a property tax bill from your county assessor, you also received a notice that disclosed the amount of the county’s total debt, annual operating expenses, total unfunded liability for pensions, and total unfunded liability for retirement healthcare?

You might not like it, but you’d have a better understanding of what all those property taxes are paying for. And in Marin County, back in 2013, after years of effort by a local group of activists – Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans – that’s exactly what happened.

Take a look at the copy of this “2016-2017 Property Tax Information” courtesy of Marin County, sent to one of their property owning taxpayers. Towards the bottom of the page, in the section entitled “MARIN COUNTY DEBT AND FINANCIAL DATA,” even the casual observer can quickly see that (as of 6/30/2015, the numbers are over a year behind) Marin County recognizes $549 million of debt on their balance sheet. The not so casual observer might have additional questions…

 *   *   *

QUESTIONS RAISED BY “MARIN COUNTY DEBT AND FINANCIAL DATA”

For example, why does the total “Retiree Related Debt” of $746 million exceed the “Total Liabilities per Balance Sheet” of $549 million? While the 6/30/2015 Consolidated Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for Marin County does report total liabilities of $549 million on page 9, “Condensed Statement of Net Position,” there is no schedule anywhere in the remaining document that provides the details behind that number, making reconciliation impossible. A simple keyword search on the number “549” proves this.

Elsewhere in Marin County’s 6/30/2015 CAFR, on page 61 “Note 8: Long Term Obligations,” the balance payable on pension obligation bonds is disclosed at $103 million, which matches the amount disclosed on the property tax information. Since on this same chart in Marin County’s 6/30/2015 CAFR the “Total Long Term Obligations” are reported to be $286 million, it is reasonable to assume that Marin County’s non-retirement related debt is the difference, i.e., $176 million.

So what does this all mean to the non-casual observer?

It means that Marin County’s total long-term debt as of 6/30/2015 was $922 million, and $746 million of that was for earned but currently unfunded retirement obligations to county workers. That is, 81 percent – eighty-one percent – of Marin County’s long-term debt is to fulfill promises the supervisors made to provide pensions and healthcare to their retirees, but have not paid for. At 7%, just the annual interest on this $746 million is $52 million per year. Imagine what Marin County could do with an extra $52 million per year.

There’s more. The non-casual observer will note that just the interest on Marin County’s unfunded retirement obligations, $52 million per year, equates to 11.2% of their entire reporting operating expenses in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, $464 million. But Marin County doesn’t just have to pay interest on their unfunded retirement obligations, they have to pay them off.

In the private sector, compliant with reforms for which, inexplicably, public sector agencies are exempt, pension systems have to amortize (pay off) their unfunded liabilities within seven years. At that rate, at 7%, the payment on Marin County’s unfunded retirement liabilities would be $138 million per year. That would be the financially responsible thing to do.

Wait! There’s much more. After all, Marin County doesn’t have to just pay off their unfunded retirement obligations, they have to make ongoing payments, as a percent of payroll, for the future pension benefits their active employees earn every year they’re working. How much is that?

Learning how much Marin County spends on payroll is tough, even though it should not be. Their CAFR discloses costs per department, in some cases, but finding a simple “Total Costs for Employees” appears to be impossible.

Rather than wade through Marin County’s entire 224 page CAFR for FYE 6/30/2015, payroll information can be found on Transparent California. Going to their Marin County page and downloading the Excel spreadsheet readily reveals that in 2016 they spent $275 million on pay and benefits, roughly 60% of their total expenditures. Payments for benefits – mostly retirement but also for current healthcare – totaled $71 million of that. Needless to say, that $71 million is not nearly enough to pay for (1)  current healthcare insurance plus (2) currently earned pension and (3) retirement healthcare benefits, along with (4) any sort of aggressive paydown of the debt for retirement benefits earned in prior years, but not funded at the time. Even if you add in the amount employees themselves contribute via withholding (Information on that? Somewhere. Good luck finding it).

If you’ve made it this far, braving this mind numbing arcana that obfuscates one of the greatest betrayals of the people by their government in American history, let’s break this down just a bit further.

Even on a 30 year repayment schedule, at 7%, Marin County’s unfunded retirement debt of $746 million would require an annual payment of $60 million. Coming out of $71 million, that leaves $11 million to work with (plus whatever employees contribute via withholding), to pay (1) current healthcare insurance AND (2) whatever new retirement healthcare benefits were earned in that year, AND (3) whatever new pension benefits were earned in that year. This amount paid to fund pension benefits earned in the current year, called the “normal contribution,” is usually expressed as a percent of payroll. According to Transparent California, Marin County’s base payroll in 2016 was $186 million. That means that if they were making just the bare minimum payments on their unfunded retirement liabilities, their total payments for currently earned benefits – normal pension contribution plus normal OPEB contribution, plus current year healthcare, plus whatever other benefits they offer – only amounted to 6% of payroll. Only six percent! There is no way that difference was made up via employee contributions.

Based on these numbers, it appears impossible that Marin County is adequately funding retirement benefits for their employees. Not even close. And it should be easy to coax these numbers from the reports available, and it should be easy for anyone with a reasonable amount of financial literacy to find these numbers and come to the same conclusion. It is not.

RECOMMENDATIONS

(1)  Make a “Debt and Financial Data” disclosure mandatory on all property tax bills, in all California counties.

(2)  Have this data include the following twelve numbers, with the expense subtotals showing the percentage of total expenses, and the debt balance subtotals showing the percentage of total debt:

  • Total county expenditures,
  • Total county expenses for payroll and benefits,
  • Amount paid towards retirement healthcare (OPEB) earned in current year,
  • Amount paid towards unfunded retirement healthcare (earned in previous years),
  • Amount paid towards retirement pensions earned in current year,
  • Amount paid towards unfunded retirement pensions (earned in previous years),
  • Amount paid on pension obligation bonds,
  • Amount paid for all other debt,
  • Total debt,
  • Total debt for healthcare,
  • Total debt for pensions (unfunded pension liability),
  • Total debt for pension obligation bonds.

(3)  Include on county CAFRs for the same year a section that contains all of the above information, with a through reconciliation to the official financial statements and schedules, so even the casual observer can verify the accuracy (or at least the consistency) of all numbers reported on the property tax schedule.

REFERENCES

Marin County Board of Supervisors, 7/30/2013 Minutes (ref. item 3, page 1)
http://marin.granicus.com/MinutesViewer.php?view_id=33&clip_id=6714&doc_id=c40ad825-4c42-1031-bc96-29b50f2ba9d1

Marin County Board of Supervisors, Meeting Archives
https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive

Marin County Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans
http://marincountypensions.com/index.html

Marin County 2015-2016 Consolidated Annual Financial Report
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/docs/forms-publications/cafr-2016.pdf

Marin County Archive of Consolidated Annual Financial Reports
https://www.marincounty.org/depts/df/financial-reports

Transparent California, 2016 salary and benefit payments for Marin County
http://transparentcalifornia.com/salaries/2016/marin-county/

How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances

Back in 2013 the City of Irvine had an unfunded pension liability of $91 million and cash reserves of $61 million. The unfunded pension liability was being paid off over 30 years with interest charged on the unpaid balance at a rate of 7.5% per year. Irvine’s cash reserves were conservatively invested and earned interest at an annual rate of around 1%. With that much money in reserve, earning almost no interest, the city council decided use some of that money to pay off their unfunded pension liability.

As reported in Governing magazine, starting in 2013, Irvine increased the amount they would pay CalPERS each year by $5M over the required payment, which at the time was about $7.7M. With 100% of that $5M reducing the principal amount owed on their unfunded liability, they expected to have the unfunded liability reduced to nearly zero within ten years, instead of taking thirty years. Here’s a simplified schedule showing how that would have played out:

CITY OF IRVINE, 2013  –  PAY $5.0 MILLION EXTRA PER YEAR
ELIMINATING UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY IN TEN YEARS

This plan wasn’t without risk. Taking $5 million out of their reserve fund for ten years would have depleted those reserves by $50 million, leaving only $11 million. But Irvine’s city managers bet on the assumption that incoming revenues over the coming years would include enough surpluses to replenish the fund. In the meantime, after ten years they would no longer have to make any payments on their unfunded pension liability, since it would be virtually eliminated. Referring to the above chart, the total payments over ten years are $127 million, meaning that over ten years, in addition to paying off the $91 million principal, they would pay $36 million in interest. If the City of Irvine had made only their required $7.7 million annual payments for the next thirty years, they would have ended paying up an astonishing $140 million in interest! By doing this, Irvine was going to save over $100 million.

Four years have passed since Irvine took this step. How has it turned out so far?

Not so good.

Referring to CalPERS Actuarial Valuation Report for Irvine’s Miscellaneous and Safety employees, at the end of 2016 the city’s unfunded pension liability was $156 million.

Irvine was doing everything right. But despite pumping $5M extra per year into CalPERS to pay down the unfunded liability which back in 2013 was $91M (and would have been down to around $64M by the end of 2016 if nothing else had changed), the unfunded liability as of 12/31/2016 is – that’s right – $156 million.

Welcome to pension finance.

The first thing to recognize is that an unfunded pension liability is a fluid balance. Each year the actuarial projections are renewed, taking into account actual mortality and retirement statistics for the participants as well as updated projections regarding future retirements and mortality. Each year as well the financial status of the pension fund is updated, taking into account how well the invested assets in the fund performed, and taking into account any changes to the future earnings expectations.

For example, CalPERS since 2013 has begun phasing in a new, lower rate of return. They are lowering the long-term annual rate of return they project for their invested assets from 7.5% to 7.0%, and may lower it further in the coming years. Whenever a pension system’s rate of return projection is lowered, at least three things happen:

(1) The unfunded liability goes up, because the amount of money in the fund is no longer expected to earn as much as it had previously been expected to earn,

(2) The payments on the unfunded liability – if the amount of that liability were to stay the same – actually go down, since the opportunity cost of not having that money in the fund is not as great if the amount it can earn is assumed to be lower than previously, and,

(3) the so-called “normal contribution,” which is the payment that is still necessary each year even when a fund is 100% funded and has no unfunded liability, goes up, because that money is being invested at lower assumed rates of return than previously.

That third major variable, the “normal contribution,” is the problem.

Because as actuarial projections are renewed – revealing that people are living longer, and as investment returns fail to meet expectations – the “normal contribution” is supposed to increase. For a pension system to remain 100% funded, or just to allow an underfunded system not to get more underfunded, you have to put in enough money each year to eventually pay for the additional pension benefits that active workers earned in that year. That is what’s called the “normal contribution.”

By now, nearly everyone’s eyes glaze over, which is really too bad, because here’s where it gets interesting.

The reason the normal contribution has been kept artificially low is because the normal contribution is the only payment to CalPERS that public employees have to help fund themselves via payroll withholding. The taxpayers are responsible for 100% of the “unfunded contribution.” CalPERS has a conflict of interest here, because their board of directors is heavily influenced, if not completely controlled, by public employee unions. They want to make sure their members pay as little as possible for these pensions, so they have scant incentive to increase these normal contributions.

When the normal contribution is too low – and it has remained ridiculously low, in Irvine and everywhere else – the unfunded liability goes up. Way up. And the taxpayer pays for all of it.

Returning to Irvine, where the city council has recently decided to increase their extra payment on their unfunded pension liability from $5 million to $7 million per year, depicted on the chart below is their new ten year outlook. As can be seen (col. 4), just the 2017 interest charge on this new $156 million unfunded pension liability is nearly $12 million. And by paying $7 million extra, that is, by paying $20.2 million per year, ten years from now they will still be carrying over $35 million in unfunded pension debt.

CITY OF IRVINE, 2017  –  PAY $7.0 MILLION EXTRA PER YEAR
REDUCTION OF UNFUNDED PENSION LIABILITY IN TEN YEARS

This debacle isn’t restricted to Irvine. It’s everywhere. It’s happening in every agency that participates in CalPERS, and it’s happening in nearly every other public employee pension system in California. The normal cost of funding pensions, which employees have to help pay for, is understated so these employees do not actually have to pay a fair portion of the true cost of these pensions. If this isn’t fraud, I don’t know what is.

It gets worse. Think about what happened between 2013 and 2017 in the stock market. The Wall Street recovery was in full swing by 2013 and by 2016 was entering so-called bubble territory. As the chart below shows, on 1/01/2013 the value of the Dow Jones stock index was 13,190. Four years later, on 12/31/2017, the value of the Dow Jones stock index was up 51%, to 19,963.

Yet over those same four years, while the Dow climbed by 51%, the City of Irvine’s unfunded pension liability grew by 71%. And this happened even though the City of Irvine paid $12.7 million each year against that unfunded liability instead of the CalPERS’s specified $7.7 million per year. Does that scare you? It should. Sooner or later the market will correct.

DOW JONES INDUSTRIAL AVERAGE
PERFORMANCE FOR THE PAST FIVE YEARS, 2013-2017

While the stock market roared, and while Irvine massively overpaid on their unfunded liability, that unfunded liability still managed to increase by 51%. Perhaps that normal contribution was a bit lower than it should have been?

Irvine did the right thing back in 2013. CalPERS let them down. Because CalPERS was, and is, understating the normal contribution in order to shield public sector workers from the true cost of their pensions. The taxpayer is the victim, as always when we let labor unions control our governments and the agencies that serve them.

REFERENCES

CalPensions Article discussing CalPERS recent polices regarding pension debt repayments:
https://calpensions.com/2017/09/25/calpers-considers-paying-down-new-debt-faster/

Irvine 2017-18 Budget – discussion of faster paydown plan on UAAL
http://legacy.cityofirvine.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=29623

Irvine Consolidated Annual Financial Report FYE 6/30/2016
http://legacy.cityofirvine.org/civica/filebank/blobdload.asp?BlobID=28697

Irvine – links to all Consolidated Annual Financial Reports
http://www.cityofirvine.org/administrative-services-department/financial-reports

CalPERS search page to find all participating agency Actuarial Valuation Reports
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/page/employers/actuarial-services/employer-contributions/public-agency-actuarial-valuation-reports

CalPERS Actuarial Valuation Report – Irvine, Miscellaneous
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/docs/actuarial-reports/2016/irvine-city-miscellaneous-2016.pdf

CalPERS Actuarial Valuation Report – Irvine, Safety
https://www.calpers.ca.gov/docs/actuarial-reports/2016/irvine-city-safety-2016.pdf

Governing Magazine report on Irvine
http://www.governing.com/columns/public-finance/col-irvine-california-plans-prepay-pension-bill.html

Steps to Improve Police Training and Accountability

“We’re not anti-cop. We’re anti bad cop. Bad cops have to be fired, just like bad politicians”
– Leader of Black Lives Matter counter-protest, who was spontaneously invited to speak at a pro-Trump rally (watch video).

There aren’t too many things that are easier to agree on than this sentiment. Even those of us who offer nearly unequivocal support for law enforcement can agree that bad cops have to be fired. But progress in the form of better training and more accountability will be incremental, despite the fact that social media now makes every tragic incident – no matter how statistically insignificant – visceral and immediate.

Last year the City of Sacramento enacted incremental improvements to their local ordinances governing police department officer training and police accountability. The impetus for this came after a homeless, mentally ill man was shot 14 times by police for walking around with a knife in North Sacramento. As the Sacramento Bee editorialized, the incident “cried out for a new approach to police abuse, one that would set a statewide or even a national standard. Instead, hamstrung by local and state laws that over the years have made police accountability much too hard in California, the City Council had to settle for doing what it could around the margins, revamping civilian review, pushing for better training and slightly improving transparency in officer-involved killings.”

What the City of Sacramento did was not necessarily enough, but it is a good place to start. It represents a savvy mix of steps that accomplish as much as can be hoped for in the face of existing laws, most of them enacted by California’s legislature.

Here are key features of the City of Sacramento’s reform:

1 – De-escalation: Greater police training to emphasize de-escalation and other nonlethal tactics when confronting suspects.

2 – Body Cameras: Police also will have to wear body cams, which tend to make interactions between officers and the public more transparent and civil.

3 – Transparency: Dashcam video of police shootings will be made public after 30 days unless the department can prove it will compromise an investigation, and victims’ families will get a first look, which will shine a light on cases that too often get complicated by emotion and hearsay.

4 – Accountable to City Council: The Office of Public Safety Accountability will at last get some money and staffing, and will report to the City Council, not the city manager, who also oversees the Police Department.

5 – Civilian Oversight: A new oversight commission, made up entirely of civilians, will get broader powers to review complaints filed with the accountability office. This will include the ability to subpoena information when needed.

SAMPLE LANGUAGE – “OFFICER NEXT DOOR” FRAMEWORK

RESOLUTION NO. 2016-Adopted by the Sacramento City Council

ADOPTING THE OFFICER NEXT DOOR FRAMEWORK

BACKGROUND:

A. During the State of the City address on January 30, 2015, Mayor Kevin Johnson announced the Officer Next Door Program (OND).

B. The vision of the OND is that Sacramento will become the safest big city in California and a model of community policing practices.

C. The goals of implementing the OND program are a measurable decrease in crime and a measurable increase in community trust and engagement.

D. The OND framework consists of four pillars: Training, Diversity, Engagement, and Accountability. Implementation of these four pillars is in the best interest of the City of Sacramento to achieve the OND vision and goals:

1. Training: The police officers of the City of Sacramento will receive training that is nationally recognized as the best practices in community policing.
2. Diversity: The City’s police department (at all levels) will reflect the diversity of our City’s residents.
3. Engagement: The OND police force is actively engaged in the community that he or she is sworn to protect.
4. Accountability: Our police department is held accountable to the highest professional standards and embraces transparency.

BASED ON THE FACTS SET FORTH IN THE BACKGROUND, THE CITY COUNCIL RESOLVES AS FOLLOWS:

Section 1. The Officer Next Door Framework attached as Exhibit A is hereby approved.

Section 2. The City Manager or the City Manager’s designee is hereby authorized to take administrative actions and develop procedures to implement the OND Framework.

Exhibit A – Officer Next Door Framework

VISION & GOALS
To make Sacramento the safest big city in California and a model of community policing demonstrated by a measurable decrease in crime and a measurable increase in community trust and engagement

FRAMEWORK
– Training: The police officers of the City of Sacramento receive training that is nationally recognized as the best practices in community policing strategies.
– Diversity: The City’s police department (at all levels) will reflect the diversity of our city’s residents.
– Engagement: The Officer Next Door police force is actively engaged in the community he or she is sworn to protect.
– Accountability: Our police department is held accountable to the highest professional standards and embraces transparency.

TRAINING
Our Officers Receive Training That Is Nationally Recognized As The Best Practices In Community Policing Strategies

SUMMARY
We want our police officers to receive consistent, high-quality training to ensure that they are well equipped to address challenging situations that may arise as they are doing their important work in the community. Over the last decade, a myriad of training programs have been developed for public safety officials which can make them more effective when faced with difficult issues. Our police department must have the necessary resources to provide access to this type of training.

ACTION STEPS
We will continue to ensure that our officers are trained in the following:
– Cultural sensitivity
– Implicit bias and discrimination recognition
– Peaceful conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques to include less lethal options.
– Chronic and mental illness recognition training including peaceful conflict resolution and deescalation techniques.
– Problem-oriented policing

DIVERSITY
Our Police Department (At All Levels) Reflects The Diversity Of Our City’s Residents

SUMMARY
Sacramento is one of the most diverse cities in America. As such, it is critical that we put proactive and deliberate strategies in place to ensure that our police force becomes more diverse. We strongly believe that this diversity will result in stronger community relations and robust engagement with our residents.

ACTION STEPS
We will work to implement the following:
– Targeted recruitment strategies focused on increasing diversity (of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).
– Mentoring and professional development geared toward increasing diversity in police leadership and command structure.
– Incentive programs to encourage police officers to live in the City and hiring more officers who currently live in the city.
– Exploring the development of a public safety charter school.

ENGAGEMENT
Our Officers Are Actively Engaged In The Communities They Are Sworn To Protect

SUMMARY
Our police force is most effective when they have meaningful and trusting relationships in the communities they serve. We must work toward creating true collaboration and understanding between officers and residents, so that our work can be proactive and preventative.

ACTION STEPS
We will implement the following to increase engagement levels:
– Community activities such as youth listening sessions and education events.
– Youth development and crime prevention strategies like Summer Night Lights and the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Taskforce.
– Restoring police staffing levels to support community policing.
– Addressing underlying, systemic issues such as education and unemployment.

ACCOUNTABILITY
Our Police Department Is Held Accountable To The Highest Professional Standards And Embraces Transparency

SUMMARY
As a community, we need to have faith that our law enforcement officers are always operating in the best interests of our residents and community. We should consistently be sharing and discussing public safety data to ensure that we’re identifying where potential issues may exist and working to correct them. Equally important is the responsibility the public has to support our police department with the resources they need.

ACTION
We will implement the following to increase transparency and accountability

Increase transparency and availability of data to the public
– Release all video associated with an officer involved shooting, in-custody death, or complaint reported to OPSA within 30 days, where said video does not hamper, impede, or taint an ongoing investigation or endanger involved parties. The family of the decedent shall be offered the opportunity to review the video prior to public release. All faces will be blurred to protect the identity of those present and a warning will also be included to advise of the graphic content of the video. If the video cannot be made public by the 30th day, the Police Chief will provide the reasons and obtain a waiver from the Council.
– Work in coordination with the Coroner’s Office to notify the impacted family as soon as possible, an assign staff to the family to act as a liaison through the process.
– Adopt a use of force policy that encourages transparency and accountability.
– Respond to public records requests and other information requests in a reasonable and timely manner consistent with law.

Implement a body camera program
– Adopt a body camera video policy consistent with council policy and law.
– Ensure the program enhances transparency and availability of data to the public.

Changes to the Office of Public Safety Accountability (OPSA)
– Have OPSA Director report directly to the Council.
– Have OPSA be responsible for staffing the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission.

Changes to the Sacramento Community Police Review Commission (SCPRC)
– The Commission should be 100% civilian led.
– SCPRC to make policy recommendations to the City Council.
– SCPRC’s governance structure to be 11 members with one from each councilmember and three from the Mayor.
– The commission shall review quarterly reports prepared by the office of public safety accountability consistent with California Penal Code section 832.7(c), relating to the number, kind, and status of all citizen complaints filed against police department personnel, to determine whether there are patterns of misconduct that necessitate revisions to any police policy, practice, or procedure.

Monitor the national movement towards independent investigations

Monitoring and follow-up
– Bi-annual presentation and quarterly reports to the City Council and SCPRC on implementation of the OND Framework.
– Annual review of OND Framework implementation including activities of OPSA and SCPRC by the City Auditor.

SAMPLE LANGUAGE – ADOPTING A USE OF FORCE POLICY

RESOLUTION NO. 2016-Adopted by the Sacramento City Council

ADOPTING A USE OF FORCE POLICY

The sanctity of life is inviolable and every person is precious. Developing and maintaining a professional and highly trained police force is imperative. In an effort to guarantee that all lives are protected and valued in the City of Sacramento, Council is adopting the following policy that requires the City Manager to ensure the police:

A. Are authorized to use deadly force only when an officer reasonably believes that a suspect poses a threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or others.

B. Issue a clear and comprehensible verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force.

C. Use the minimum amount of force necessary, under the circumstances presented to the officer, to apprehend a subject.

D. Develop and issue specific guidelines for the type of force and tools authorized for a given level of resistance.

E. Are issued and carry less-lethal weapons consistent with current best practice.

F. Do not move in front of moving vehicles.

G. Do not shoot at moving vehicles unless the person poses a threat with a weapon other than the vehicle OR has exhibited a specific intent to use the vehicle as a weapon.

H. Intervene when an officer observes another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances, and when in a position to do so, to prevent the use of unreasonable force and report the incident to their immediate supervisor as soon as reasonably possible.

Monitoring Method: Council Report

Frequency: Semi-Annual (March & September)

I. Receive training in de-escalating encounters with the public, to include mentally ill individuals.

J. Are trained in basic first aid and render such aid (as soon as it is safe to do so) after a deadly force incident.

K. Make death notifications to family members of a subject that has died as a result of an officer involved shooting or while in police custody.

L. Release all video associated with an officer involved shooting, in-custody death, or complaint reported to OPSA within 30 days, where said video does not hamper, impede, or taint an ongoing investigation or endanger involved parties. The family of the decedent shall be offered the opportunity to review the video prior to public release. All faces will be blurred to protect the identity of those present and a warning will also be included to advise of the graphic content of the video. If the video cannot be made public by the 30th day, the Police Chief will provide the reasons and obtain a waiver from the Council

REFERENCES

City of Sacramento City Council Report, November 29, 2016
http://sacramento.granicus.com/MetaViewer.php?view_id=22&clip_id=3900&meta_id=485761

City of Sacramento City Council, Archived Meetings
http://sacramento.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=22

Sacramento’s new rules are just a first step toward police reform, Sacramento Bee, December 1, 2016
http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article118330608.html

Heavyweight Los Angeles law firm to challenge Sacramento on police practices, Sacramento Bee, November 27, 2016
http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article117615278.html

A lost opportunity on police reform, Sacramento Bee Editorial, June 6. 2015
http://www.sacbee.com/opinion/editorials/article23220456.html

How Placer County Privatized Inmate Food Services

Introducing competition to the public sector is an essential part of delivering cost-effective services to taxpayers. What happened earlier this year in Placer County is just one example of how millions of savings can be realized by privatizing a public service. By replacing county employees with a private firm to provide inmate food services to county inmates and juvenile offenders, starting in 2018 Placer County will save over $600,000 per year. Here is how these savings can be realized:

1 – Give Agency Authority to Outsource: Ensure that your agency has the authority to contract for government services. The Placer County Charter has a provision under “general powers” that states as follows: “The Board may contract with an independent contractor to provide any services required of, or performed by, the county if it is more economical to do so.”

2 – Conduct Cost Analysis: Placer County engaged in a comprehensive analysis of the cost and benefit of continuing to use county employees to provide inmate food services vs. using outside private contractors. This process was conducted concurrently with taking bids from qualified contractors.

3 – Enact Resolution and Award Contract: On March 7, 2017 the Placer County Board of Supervisors awarded a five-year, $13.2 million contract with Aramark Correctional Services.

Making changes like this impact existing county employees, but to mitigate this, Placer County obtained an assurance from Aramark that all county employees interested in working with the contractor will be interviewed. In addition, arrangements were made for staff who do not transition to Aramark to receive assistance from the county’s Human Resources department and Business Advantage Network, to provide job training and assist county employees in identifying other job opportunities.

What Placer County has done with inmate food service they can do elsewhere. In early 2016, the county issued a request for proposals to evaluate other service delivery options. By making judicious use of the option to outsource public services to private contractors, public agencies can realize significant direct savings. But merely the deterrence value of the outsourcing option can be valuable for a public agency. When public employee unions know that their employers have the option of turning to a private contractor, they will be more reasonable in their negotiations.

REFERENCES

Charter of the County of Placer
Article III General Powers, Sec. 302 Duties, Part (h) Contracting for Services:
“The Board may contract with an independent contractor to provide any services required of, or performed by, the county if it is more economical to do so.”
http://qcode.us/codes/placercounty/view.php?topic=charter_of_the_county_of_placer-charter-iii-302&frames=on

Press Release – Placer County
“Placer opts to shift inmate food service to private contractor”
https://www.placer.ca.gov/news/2017/march/correctional_food

Meeting Agenda – Placer County Board of Supervisors
Agenda for March 7th, 2017 Board Meeting including resolution to privatize correctional food services
http://www.placer.ca.gov/upload/bos/cob/documents/sumarchv/2017/170307A/bosa170307.htm

Memorandum – Placer County Board of Supervisors
Cost analysis of privatizing correctional food services – March 7th
http://www.placer.ca.gov/upload/bos/cob/documents/sumarchv/2017/170307A/04A.pdf

Tips for Negotiating with Public Sector Unions

You’ve just been elected to the city council. You’re 34 years old and you’ve been attending your city council meetings for almost a decade. You’ve served on some civic improvement commissions. You’ve been a concerned activist for most of your life. But the firefighters union contract is being renegotiated this year, and you’re about to go behind closed doors and negotiate.

On the other side of the table are your respected friends who have protected your town for as long as you can remember. But their union is part of a national organization that wields tremendous financial and political power. And sitting across that table, alongside your friends who run the local fire department, are seasoned professionals who have been involved in labor negotiations for their entire careers. You are outgunned. What do you do?

This scenario has played out across California, especially in the smaller cities and counties and school districts. The elected officials charged with managing these smaller jurisdictions work part-time, for little or no pay. They negotiate with career professionals whose unions often are the largest single source for the campaign contributions that got them elected, or can get them defeated in the next election. The result of this situation is that government unions have a huge advantage in contract negotiations. For all practical purposes, they often run these smaller towns and school districts. What do you do?

Here are a few suggestions that can help make a difference:

1 – Use Outside Negotiators:

They will provide greater expertise in the subject matter, they will already know proven negotiation strategies, they will readily understand the contract language, and they offer a valuable independent, third-party perspective.

Of course it isn’t always necessary to hire an outside negotiator, it depends on the complexity of the negotiations and it depends on the financial impact of the contract. If it affects a large percentage of your budget, it makes more sense to hire an independent negotiator.

If you decide to hire an outside negotiator, you also have to be sure you are in compliance with existing codes and state law. Here is sample language to insert into a resolution to hire an outside negotiator:

OUTSIDE NEGOTIATOR – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

The use of an outside negotiator shall apply to all formal meet and confer processes undertaken pursuant to the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, where either a recognized employee organization or the city, through their respective representatives propose 1) significant changes to contract terms, 2) extensions, or 3) when the employee association negotiates with third party negotiators or legal counsel.

In an effort to avoid inherent conflicts of interest, if an outside negotiator is deemed necessary, the principal representative negotiating on behalf of the city shall, 1) not be an employee of the city, 2) not be a member of any public pension plan under the city, and 3) have a demonstrated expertise in negotiating labor and employment agreements on behalf of municipalities. The city council shall designate one or more management level employees to be present during negotiations and to assist the principal negotiator as the city council and/or principal negotiator deem appropriate.

2 – Have an Independent Auditor Analyze the Fiscal Impact:

The first step is to get complete factual information in order to perform an economic analysis of the contract. Here are factors to consider:

Get an actuarial analysis: Preparing and providing an economic analysis of the short and long term costs of every term and condition of employment in the contract is the first way to ensure that 1) city council members have the best data available in front of them to negotiate and make a decision, and 2) the public has the appropriate data to vet the contract and the Council’s proceedings. If these negotiations affect pension benefits in any way, the economic analysis should include both the funded and unfunded actuarial liability that would or may ensue from adoption of the contract.

Use an independent auditor: This will allow city council members, staff, and the
public to benefit from the general level of confidence provided by a thorough and
reliable economic analysis by an external professional. Information from outside auditors should be used in conjunction with information from staff whenever practical.

Make sure the economic analysis includes tangible comparisons: The economic analysis of each term and condition of the contract can and should be viewed in the framework of how it will affect the citizens. Also, utilize tangible examples of comparisons with other programs. For instance, if a contract will cost the city X amount of dollars, contextualize it to show that X amount of dollars is equal to a specific city service or program.

Invest in staff training so they can also perform economic analysis: In addition to the use of an independent auditor, city human resources professionals need the proper resources and training to provide and analyze an economic analysis.

Provide for public review of the proposed new contract: The City should consider making the fiscal impacts of the contract available to the public and the City Council at least two (2) City Council meetings prior to consideration by the City Council of an initial meet and confer proposal.

INDEPENDENT AUDITOR – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

An independent auditor, a certified public accountant, or an actuarial accountant, shall prepare a study and supplemental data upon which the study is based, that identifies the fiscal impacts attributed to each term and condition of employment made available to the members of all recognized employee organizations.

The first analysis shall be of existing contract costs and of each thereafter.
The above report and findings of the independent auditor shall be completed and made available for review by the city council and the public at least two (2) City Council meetings before consideration by the city council of an initial meet and confer process.

The above report shall be regularly updated by the independent auditor to itemize the cost and the funded and unfunded actuarial liability which would or may result from adoption or acceptance of each meet and confer proposal. These measurements shall display the fiscal impacts of the employee association and or/city proposals. The report shall be prepared to include all benefit and pay aspects of each MOU, and shall include written council member acknowledgement that the report has been read and considered by the signing councilmember.

3 – Consider Transparent Discussion of Offers and Counteroffers

California’s current open meeting laws provide that a City Council can meet in closed session to provide its bargaining unit representatives with instructions and parameters for negotiation in the meet and confer process. Closed sessions allow City Councils to speak privately regarding their bargaining parameters without disclosing these parameters to labor representatives.

Additionally, the meet and confer process provides the opportunity for city representatives and labor representatives to bargain in good faith in order to reach an agreement on the proposed labor contract. Here are factors to consider:

Report the Facts: Transparency may result in more realistic counters or counteroffers. Broad dissemination of offers and counteroffers provides a progress report and clearer understanding for both the public and bargaining unit members.

Exercise discretion: Disclosure of offers and counteroffers may result in additional public posturing and increased politicization, which can affect negotiations. All parties involved in negotiations should use caution and clear communication when reporting out of closed session.

TRANSPARENCY – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

The city council shall report out the details of all formal offers that have been rejected at the time of the counteroffer rejecting each proposed term. City council labor negotiators shall have the duty to advise the city council during any closed session of all offers, counteroffers, information, and/or statements of position discussed by the labor negotiators taking place in the meet and confer process since the last such closed session.

4. Require Disclosures of Private Communications

Having city council members disclose communication contacts that were had with any labor representative is another way to bring transparency to the negotiation process and to build faith with the public. A careful value judgment can be made to what type of conversation is appropriate to report to the public. Factors to consider:

Disclose communications: While this principle may be contentious for some city council members, it can be viewed as a disclosure requirement, not a “no-deal” requirement. The communication that is disclosed may simply be that the conversation occurred.

Consider the impact on the process: There is some historical context that private meetings, without the disclosure of names, have been the environment needed to reach an agreement. However, a balance can be found to reconcile transparency with private communications. If a council member is going to meet with the employee group they should remember their closed session obligations and just listen. Council members that talk to employee groups outside of formal negotiations may undermine the negotiation process.

Preserve the ongoing relationship: All parties should approach the process in a respectful and sensitive way that will assist in building long-term working relationships that survive the sometimes difficult negotiation process.

DISCLOSURE – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

Each city council member shall disclose both publicly and during closed sessions, the identity of any and all employee association representatives with whom the city council member has had any verbal, written, electronic or other communication(s) regarding a subject matter of a pending meet and confer process.

5 – Allow Time for Public Comment

Disclosing the MOU and making it subject to more than one (1) city council meeting provides the opportunity for the public to effectively weigh in on the matter. Factors to consider:

MOU negotiations should have time for public comment consistent with other ordinances: 1st and 2nd readings at City Council meetings is standard practice for normal ordinances, and this seeks to put labor negotiations under that standard.

Be sure to get the timing right: Cities must remain in compliance with AB 537 (Chapter 785, Statutes of 2013)3 which requires that if a tentative agreement is reached by the authorized representative of a City and a recognized bargaining unit, the city council must vote to accept or reject that agreement within thirty (30) days of 1st consideration at a noticed public meeting.

PUBLIC COMMENT – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

Any agreed upon memorandum of understanding shall be introduced for first reading at a regular city council meeting and presented for approval at the next regular city council meeting in the same manner as a the first and second reading of an ordinance.

REFERENCES

To read Assembly Bill No. 537 (Chapter 785, Statutes of 2013) please click the following link:  http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/13-14/bill/asm/ab_0501-0550/ab_537_bill_20131013_chaptered.htm

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

These suggestions were originally crafted by a committee of experienced local elected officials, city staff and thought leaders through a policy committee at the Association of California Cities -Orange County.

 

 

It’s time for your community to create a municipal audit

The San Diego District Attorney last week charged John Collins with misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years as superintendent of Poway Unified School District.

The allegations would be shocking if they weren’t so common. In Placentia, Bell, Compton, Pasadena, Beaumont, and elsewhere, California cities have needlessly lost millions, and for a time, nobody knew. Accounting is boring. Until it isn’t. Just as the devil is in the details, the financial fate of public agencies is buried in the numbers.

Whether it’s via corruption or incompetence, without vigilant oversight, millions can be lost. Even in wealthy suburban cities with surplus funds, it’s still necessary to verify that internal controls are in place. In larger cities with limited funds and urgent needs for public services, it’s even more important. No matter what sort of city you live in, things can go terribly wrong.

If you’re a concerned citizen or an elected official charged with responsible management of your city’s finances, the annual audit can be extremely helpful. But instead of bringing in a CPA firm merely to verify the balances on your financial statements, you have an opportunity to do much more. Here are some ideas for getting the most out of your audit.

One recommendation, coming from Linda Lindholm, who served for fourteen years on the city council of Laguna Niguel and was mayor twice, is to change audit firms every five years. Let them know when they’re hired that it will be for a five year engagement. This policy helps ensure against the slight but very real possibility that an overly cozy relationship might develop between members of the city’s permanent staff, and the audit partners. A firm that is on a limited term of engagement will have far less motivation to smooth over bad news to keep the account.

Lindholm also recommended keeping an arms-length relationship with the auditors throughout the audit process. Once they’ve been given their instructions, as a matter of policy, council members should leave them alone until their report is completed. This prevents any elected official from attempting to influence the auditors.

So what more should a city have their auditors do, beyond just checking over the financial reports? To answer this we talked with several public accountants who have audited local agencies. Rich Kikuchi, a managing partner at LSA CPAs, makes the distinction between a “financial audit” and an “internal audit,” where the internal audit, or “watchdog audit,” represents this extra work. Other people we spoke with viewed this process as an extension of the normal audit. Some called it a “secondary audit.” Whatever it is called, here are a few of the specific things an elected official can instruct their auditors to add to their regular annual work:

  • Are funds being spent in compliance with the terms of the grants under which they were awarded?
  • Are what are the terms of capital improvement bonds, interest rate, payout timeline, use of funds?
  • Are there any irregularities in city investments?
  • Are the city’s employee payroll and benefits records consistent with what the city council authorized?
  • Are there always two signatures on all outgoing checks from the city?
  • Are all transfers in and out of the city’s bank accounts consistent with authorized city budgets?

Remember. Not boring. Millions of dollars of taxpayers money can be lost when questions like these aren’t proactively answered. In larger cities, hundreds of millions.

Depending on how much extra work auditors get assigned, the added costs to the CPA firm can add up. But often these additional fees are not significant when the work is performed at the same time as the auditors are on-site anyway to do their conventional audit. And of course if these auditors end up uncovering a significant problem in the course of this extra work, the savings realized by solving the problem could dwarf what it cost to get it discovered.

Another tip: When elected officials meet with the audit firm to identify and assign additional work, sometimes it makes sense to keep the additional assignments confidential. If a cover-up is occurring, there’s no benefit in announcing to staff where the extra scrutiny is going to fall.

California’s cities and counties face unprecedented financial challenges. The obvious one, mandatory payments to the pension systems that increase every year, is not going away. Other budget items that may have been neglected such as maintenance and upgrades of roads and other public works, eventually have to be faced, possibly at great cost. The last thing your city needs is to see money being wasted through misuse of funds. Especially when there is an annual opportunity to dig deep, expose the problem, and save that money.

References:

State Controller’s Office, Internal Control Guidelines for Local Agencies, 2015 (Betty Yee)
http://www.sco.ca.gov/Files-AUD/2015_internal_control_guidelines.pdf

“Watchdog Audit” Checklist – courtesy of LSA CPAs:

Public Safety
– Cash receipting/fee schedule
– Purchasing – ordering/receiving – approval
– Invoice approval
– Credit card use
– Budget monitoring
– Inventory control
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Capital asset controls – purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Payroll – timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual – period end reporting
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– Other significant revenue sources

Community Development/Planning
– Inspections
– Permitting process and fee determination
– Revenue recognition & accounting for deposits
– Segregation of duties and supervision
– Use of City vehicles & fuel usage
– Cash receipting/fee schedule
– Purchasing – ordering/receiving/ – approval
– Invoice approval
– Credit card use
– Budget monitoring
– Capital asset controls – purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Payroll – timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual — period end reporting
– Housing compliance and monitoring
– Review of any management companies used including controls, compliance, monitoring
– Child development program
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– Other significant revenue sources

Parks & Recreation
– Cash receipting / fee schedule
– Revenue recognition & deposits accounting Class/event enrollment procedures
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval Invoice approval
– Credit card use
– Credit card procedures & online payments Budget monitoring
– Inventory control
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Payroll — timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking) IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual — period end reporting
– Use of City vehicles & fuel usage
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– other significant revenue sources

Public Works
– Capital project controls
– Developer agreements
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval
– Invoice approval Credit card use
– Budget monitoring
– Inventory control
– Land management
– Street management
– Cash flow
– Long-term expenditure planning and capital asset replacement/maintenance on major assets
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection, fair value assessment/Developer contributed assets
– Payroll — timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual — period end reporting
– Segregation of duties and supervision
– Revenue recognition & accounting for deposits
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– other significant revenue sources
– Debt compliance

Golf Course, Theatre (other enterprise activities managed by 3rd party)
– Management company compliance, report preparation & management fee verifications
– Fee schedule
– Cash receipting, revenue recognition (all revenue sources)
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval
– Expenditure reporting
– Financial controls over accounting
– Cash & reconciliation procedures
– Financial period close & reporting
– Interim & monthly reporting
– Communication with the City
– City oversight
– Inventory control
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Segregation of duties and supervision
– IT & systems analysis
– Credit card procedures
– City oversight
– Budget development and monitoring
– Debt/lease management
– Cost allocations Customer complaints
– other significant revenue sources

Water, Sewer, Electric Utilities
– If applicable -Management company compliance, report preparation & management fee
– Billing
– Fee schedule
– Capital project controls
– Long-term expenditure planning and capital asset replacement/maintenance on major assets
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection, fair value assessment/Developer contributed assets
– Review of accounting operations
– Financial period close & reporting
– Interim & monthly reporting
– Communication with the City
– Inventory control
– Segregation of duties and supervision
– Budget development and monitoring
– Credit card procedures & online payments
– Credit card use
– Cash receipting, revenue recognition (all revenue sources)
– Cash receipting / fee schedule
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval Invoice approval
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Payroll — timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Complex accounting — derivatives, swaps, futures, intangibles, etc.
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– Debt compliance

Finance Department
– Payroll
– Purchasing / receiving
– Credit cards
– Travel
– IT & systems analysis — redundancy review
– Grant management
– Capital assets
– Inventories
– Journal entries
– Cash/transfers & bank account activity
– Wire transfers / EFT
– Debt management
– Long-term Cash flow & expenditure forecasting
– Cost allocations
– Customer complaints
– Billing for miscellaneous revenues
– Fraud management
– TOT/UUT/ business license/ other significant revenue sources
– Debt compliance

Governance
– Risk management
– Information & communication
– Credit card use
– Conflicts of interest
– Oversight of financial reporting & management override of controls Fraud hotline and Customer complaints

Transportation
– Management company compliance, report preparation & management fee verifications
– City oversight
– Communication with the City
– Cash receipting / fee schedule
– Purchasing – ordering / receiving – approval
– Invoice approval
– Credit card use
– Budget monitoring
– Inventory control
– Fuel usage
– Fleet management
– Capital asset controls — purchasing/receiving/observation & inspection
– Payroll — timekeeping & review procedures
– Grant management (application, award, reporting, compliance, communication, G/L tracking)
– IT & systems analysis
– Revenue and expenditure accrual — period end reporting
– Customer complaints
– other significant revenue sources

Internal service funds
– Allocation, classification
– Cost analysis

 

 

In Search of Heroes

California is not just any “blue state.” By many measures, California is a blue nation. It boasts the world’s sixth largest economy, isolated from the rest of the nation by mountains and deserts that were virtually impassable before modern times. It is blessed with diverse industries, abundant natural resources, and the most attractive weather in North America. California is nearly a nation unto itself.

And it is an occupied nation. California is ruled by a coalition of monopolistic businesses, public sector unions, and the environmentalist lobby. These Occupiers control a Democratic super-majority in the state legislature, as well as nearly all of California’s major cities, counties and school boards. To enrich and empower themselves, the Occupiers have oppressed California’s dwindling middle class and small business sectors, and condemned millions more to poverty and dependence.

For the average working family, no state in America is harder to live in than California. It has the highest cost-of-living, the highest taxes, the most onerous regulations, one of the worst systems of public education, congested freeways and failing infrastructure.  It will take heroic efforts to turn this around. And heroic efforts require heroes.

In the face of this overwhelming power, this alliance of oligarchs and government bureaucrats that has conned voters into embracing their servitude, where do you begin? What steps can you take? How do you rescue education, cut taxes, encourage new homes and new infrastructure, and save small businesses from crippling regulations?

As it turns out, a lot has been done in select locales, where heroes stepped up and successfully fought for reforms. And if those reforms could be replicated in other cities and counties, things would begin to change. To borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, if small local reforms began to spread across this great state, it would “not be the beginning of the end, but it would be the end of the beginning.” Here are some examples:

(1) Turning failing schools into charter schools:

As recently reported by CPC general counsel Craig Alexander, in 2015 parents at the Palm Lane Elementary School of the Anaheim City School District turned in far more signatures than needed under the Parent Trigger Law. The goal of the law and the parents at Palm Lane was to convert a public school that had failed their children for over a decade into a charter school. But the district, as a pretext to denying the Parent’s Petitions, improperly disallowed many signatures. It took a few years for parent volunteers and pro-bono attorneys, all of them heroically volunteering their time, to fight in court. But on Friday, April 28, 2017, the Court of Appeals issued a 34-page opinion that upheld in full the trial court’s ruling in favor of the parents and against the Anaheim Elementary School District. The Appeals Court found the trial court’s initial ruling, including the court’s findings of the bad faith tactics of the district, was correct in all aspects. Palm Lane Elementary school will start the 2017-2018 school year as a charter school.

(2) Stopping secret negotiations between cities and counties and public sector unions:

It wasn’t easy, but a few years ago, heroic progress was made. Orange County, Costa Mesa, and Fullerton all adopted so called “COIN” ordinances. COIN stands for “civic openness in negotiations.” This prevented elected officials from approving sweetheart deals with the government unions whose campaign contributions got them elected, all behind closed doors with minimal opportunities for public review. And to explain what happened next, one may borrow a quote from Tolkien: “Sauron’s [the Occupiers] wrath will be terrible, his retribution swift.” California’s union-controlled legislature passed a law they termed “CRONEY” (Civic Reporting Openness in Negotiations Efficiency Act), which mandates government agencies with COIN ordinances make public all negotiations with private vendors involving contracts over $250,000. There’s no comparison, of course. Private vendors disclose proprietary cost information in negotiations, and public entities are already required to take multiple bids in a competitive process. By contrast, public sector compensation, benefits and work rules are by definition not proprietary, they are public. And public sector unions, regrettably, have no competitors.

(3) Reforming financially unsustainable pension benefits:

If someone told you that they were going to invest their money, but if that money didn’t earn enough interest, they were going to take your money to make up the difference, would you think that was fair? Of course not. But that’s how a couple of million unionized public sector workers are treating the rest of us. California’s annual pension costs have risen from 3% of all state and local government revenue (i.e., “taxes”) to nearly 10% today, and there is no end in sight. But heroes are out there. In June 2012 voters in San Diego and San Jose passed pension reform initiatives. In both cases, to borrow some Star Wars terminology, “The Empire [The Occupiers] Strikes Back.” After relentless attacks in court, San Diego’s reforms were left largely intact, and San Jose’s were severely undermined, although some important provisions were preserved.

The people who fought for these reforms are too numerous to mention. They are all heroes. Some of them, like San Jose mayor Chuck Reed, San Diego councilmember Carl DeMaio, Costa Mesa mayor Jim Righeimer, and California state senator Gloria Romero, were elected officials whose courage has earned them the permanent enmity of the Occupiers. Other heroes, far more numerous, were the citizens, parents, and activists who dedicated countless hours to these causes.

Turning California back into a place where ordinary citizens can afford homes and get quality public education is not going to be easy. But there is no chance unless heroic individuals band together and fight the Occupiers, one issue at a time, one city at a time, one school district at a time.

Over the next several months, the California Policy Center intends to find more examples of heroic local reforms. It is our intention to not only compile these stories, but for each of them, distill them to the essential steps that were taken, so that these winning formulas can serve as an example to others.

We are in search of heroes. Contact us. Tell us your story.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring can be reached at ed@calpolicycenter.org.

 

How These Public Schools Went from ‘Exemplary’ to 'Deteriorating' in Just Months

Just months before they told the public they need billions of dollars in new tax revenue for school repairs, school district officials across California were telling the state Department of Education a very different story: their facilities are in “good” condition — even “exemplary.”

The glowing self-assessments are contained in School Accountability Report Cards reviewed by California Policy Center.

In exchange for state funding, all public schools in California must publish annual SARCs to “provide the public with important information about each public school and to communicate a school’s progress in achieving its goals.”

School districts – under the leadership of the superintendent or deputy superintendent – are responsible for completing the SARCs and accurately representing the state of each school. They rank the condition of each facility ­– “good,” “fair,” or “poor” ­– and give an overall rating. After being published by the district and submitted to the California Department of Education, the report cards are made available to the general public.

A letter from Brea-Olinda Unified School District (BOUSD) superintendent Brad Mason announces a $288 million bond will enable that north Orange County district to repair “old and deteriorating schools.” The result will be “safe, healthy and modern learning environments.”

But in December, BOUSD schools reported that all features of each of its facilities were in at least  “good” condition, and that every facility was generally “exemplary.” A few months after that SARC report, Mason told voters that only a tax hike could address the district’s “serious school facility issues.”

South of BOUSD, in Huntington Beach, Ocean View School District officials claim they need a $319 million tax increase for “essential repairs and improvements.” But district officials had just reported that six out of the 11 elementary schools were in overall “exemplary” condition. The other five were in “good” condition. All four middle schools were also rated “good” overall.

Catrin Thorman is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. She is a graduate of Azusa Pacific University, and a former Teach for America corps member in Phoenix, Arizona.

California Cities Facing Huge Pension Increases from CalPERS

In their most recent actuarial reports CalPERS for the first time provided pension cost estimates for the next 8 years, from 2015 to 2023.

How high are these costs going for California’s cities who retroactively increased their pensions at CalPERS urging over the past 15 years? To answer that question I looked at the largest city in my county, Santa Rosa and this is what I found.

Data Sources for this Report

The data used to develop the spreadsheet analysis done as part of this report are NOT numbers that I calculated. The past numbers for 2002 to 2015 are taken directly from the City of Santa Rosa’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports found on the City’s website (This page has the links to Santa Rosa’s CAFRs from 2001 through 2015. In each of these CAFRs, the pension information is found in the section entitled “Notes to Basic Financial Statements” under the heading “Employees Retirement Plan.”). The projected growth of certain costs – such as retiree healthcare benefits (also known as “other post employment benefits,” or OPEB), the payroll and sales and property tax revenues – use inflation rates or growth rates similar to what CalPERS uses.

The future pension costs were obtained directly from the 2013 and 2015 Actuarial Reports prepared by CalPERS and found on the CalPERS website. Since the future costs are based upon CalPERS achieving a 7.5% net rate of investment return, I believe their costs are understated, but I used them anyway. But since the pension plan has $804 million worth of assets if the pension fund returns 6.5%, in a single year it will add $8 million to the City’s pension debt and a 5% return would add $20 million.

Looking at the data going back 16 years what I found is that in 2000, Santa Rosa’s pension contribution was $1.8 million and the plan was 122% funded, meaning there were $1.22 worth of invested assets in the fund for every $1.00 worth of benefits earned.

With CalPERS wholehearted support and assistance, on August 6, 2002, the Santa Rosa City Council passed a board resolution to enact a new contract with CalPERS that changed formulas from 2% per year of service at 55 years of age for non-safety Miscellaneous employees to a 3% at 60 formula.  The new formula was provided prospectively, meaning it only applied to future years of service, not past years.

For Police and Fire employees, the new contract was adopted retroactively so it applied to past and future years of service. Their formula went from 2% per year of service at 55 years of age to 3% at 50. This represents a more than 50% increase in the benefit, since along with the “multiplier” increasing from 2% to 3%, the age of eligibility dropped from 55 to 50. But it was the retroactive granting of this benefit that caused even more significant financial liability. This is because the multiplier was increased by 50% even for years already worked and raised pensions from 60% of salary to 90% of salary for 30 years of service.

These changes ended up having a serious impact on the pension costs and the unfunded liability because CalPERS used an overly optimistic rate of investment return of 8.25% compounded per year in their cost analysis. Over the past 15 years since the increase, CalPERS has only achieved a 5% compound rate of return. Many experts believe in this current low interest rate environment returns will remain at the 5% return level for the foreseeable future.

In July of 2003 the City took on $53 million worth of new debt by selling Pension Obligation Bonds (POB) and giving the proceeds to CalPERS to pay down the unfunded liability that was created by the new formulas. With interest these bonds will divert over $100 million from government services to debt service.

CalPERS Flawed Cost Analysis and Lack of Proper Disclosure

CalPERS cost analysis provided to the City in 2002 stated the cost for the new 3% at 50 formula for Safety members would be 13.27% of salary and the cost for the 3% at 60 formula for Miscellaneous members would be 9.87% of salary. However, as previously stated, these estimates were calculated assuming that pension assets would grow at 8.25% per year into the future. Since CalPERS investments have only averaged 5% over the past 15 years the increases have created $287 million in unfunded pension liabilities for the City as of 2015.

In addition, the analysis did not provide the City with any warning or disclosure regarding what would happen if the 8.25% investment return was not achieved. CalPERS simply wrote “For many plans at CalPERS the financial soundness of the plan will not be jeopardized regardless of the new formula choice made by the employer.”

The Growth of Pension Costs Since the Increase

In 2001, the City’s pension contribution was $1.5 million and in the first 4 years following the increase it grew to $11.5 million. In addition, the funding ratio dropped from 122% in 2001 to 70% in 2005 meaning the fund, instead of $63 million in excess assets now had $128 million in unfunded liabilities.

In 2006, the annual cost grew by another $5 million hitting $16.6 million and by 2015 had grown to $21 million. However, this was a very modest growth considering CalPERS lost 29% of its assets during the Great Recession in 2008 and 2009. CalPERS lowered contributions in order to help cities and counties who saw their tax revenues during the recession drop. So CalPERS extended the amortization period on the unfunded liabilities from 9 to 20 years and smoothed their investment gains and losses from 4 to 15 years into the future. Basically, these were accounting gimmicks that resulted in severe underfunding of the pension plan and these changes exist today. The chart below shows the growth of Santa Rosa public employee retirement costs (click here to see the underlying calculations).

Santa Rosa Retirement Cost Growth

However, now CalPERS is worried that the plans are not being properly funded and pension contributions need to be doubled over the next 9 years.

Projected Future Costs

In their 2015 actuarial reports, CalPERS provided the City with their normal employer contribution as a percentage of payroll and the unfunded actuarial liability (UAL) as a total cost each year from 2015 to 2023. Using a 3% payroll growth assumption and their UAL numbers, I calculated the annual costs going forward. In addition, I added the pension obligation bond debt service each year going forward along with the cost of retiree healthcare benefits using a 5% annual cost increase assumption as CalPERS does.

My analysis indicates that during the next 8 years, the cost for retiree benefits will increase from $31.0 million or 33.7% of payroll in 2015 to $59.1 million or 48% of payroll in 2023.

The nearly doubling of pension and retiree healthcare costs means the City will need to cut salaries, benefits, services and/or increase taxes each and every year going forward by $3.2 million per year to meet their retiree benefit costs.

Pension and Healthcare Costs as a Percentage of Tax Revenues

More important than pension costs as a percentage of payroll are pension costs as a percentage of tax revenues because tax revenues are what enables the City to pay for its benefits. Once retiree benefit costs exceed the City’s ability to pay them, they will no longer be able to be fully paid and at that point either they will need to be reduced in bankruptcy or through significant pension reductions. The chart below shows the growth of pension costs relative to that of general fund property tax and sales tax revenues.

churchill-2016-10-31-chart

The results of my analysis are staggering. Over the past 15 years’ sales and property tax revenues have climbed an average of 3% per year, while employee retirement costs have increased an average of 19% per year. This has led to a growth of retiree benefit costs from 3.5% of major tax revenues in 2001 to 47% in 2015 and an estimated growth to 70% of major tax revenues by 2023 (Editor’s note:  the city receives other revenues which may also be available to finance pension costs).

Growth of the Unfunded Liability

The unfunded liability of the pension plan is calculated by taking the assets in the plan minus the present value of the benefits already earned by current employees and retirees, considered the plan’s liability. The funding ratio is determined by dividing the market value of assets in the plan by the liability.

CalPERS discounts the long term liability by assuming before the money is paid to retirees, it will earn investment income. CalPERS currently uses an assumed 7.5% rate of investment return to calculate the liability and payments to the plan. So if the assumed investment return is lowered, the unfunded liability of the plan increases along with the cost of paying off the liability. Unfunded liability costs are borne by taxpayers and are not a shared expense with the employees.

Currently, using a 7.5% assumed rate of return, the pension fund has $287 million worth of unfunded liabilities and pension bond debt and is 74% funded. However, many experts believe in this low interest rate environment a lower investment return assumption should be used. Many experts think that a 5.5% to 6.5% rate should be used. Other experts believe a 3.5% rate should be used since this is about the rate private pension plans are required to use and what CalPERS uses if a City wanted to buy their way out of the CalPERS system. I won’t guess what the future investment returns will be, but here is what happens to the unfunded liability at various rates of investment return assumptions:

  • At 6.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $426 million and $50 million per year to would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 5.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $585 million and $97 million per year would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 4.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $755 million and $137 million per year would be added to the City’s pension costs.
  • At 3.5% the unfunded liability would increase to $967 million and $187 million per year would be added to the City’s pension cost.

Santa Rosa Analysis of Unfunded Liability at Various Rates of Investment Return

20161028-cpc-churchill1

City Pension Plan Status Using ERISA Standards

Under the Federal ERISA rules for private pensions, a high quality bond rate of return is used to determine the assumed rate of investment return. Today that is around 3.5%. ERISA also defines the health of a pension plan as follows:

  • Less than 80% funded is considered “seriously endangered”
  • Less than 70% funded is considered “at risk”
  • Less than 65% funded is considered “critical status”

So under ERISA standards, the City of Santa Rosa’s pension plan at 45% funded when assuming a 3.5% return is 20 percentage points below what ERISA would consider “critical status”. So one could more accurately describe the pension system as being on “life support”.  Also, under ERISA rules the pension benefits each year would stop being accrued until the plan becomes 60% funded to keep the hole from going deeper.

ERISA also requires the plan sponsor pay off their unfunded liabilities over 7 years. CalPERS currently allows public agencies to pay off their liability over up to 30 years. If the City was required to pay off its unfunded liability over the next 7 years, their annual contribution to the pension fund would grow from $28 million to $146 million in 2015 alone. So under ERISA rules pension costs would increase by $120 million per year and take them to 145% of payroll.

Conclusion

The City of Santa Rosa and all cities in California who retroactively increased pensions need to restructure their pension systems. Otherwise it is increasingly unlikely they will be able to afford the benefits that have already been earned and provide taxpayers with the services they deserve for their tax dollars.

City officials can no longer pretend a crisis does not exist. They would be well advised to form a Pension Advisory Committee and bring all the stakeholders to the table to look at all the options, have an actuary determine the savings for each option and make informed decisions to save the pension plan and benefits people are counting on to fund their retirement.

 *   *   *

About the author:  Ken Churchill is the author of numerous studies on the pension crisis in California and is also the Director of New Sonoma, an organization of financial experts and citizens concerned about Sonoma County’s finances and governance.

REFERENCES AND RELATED ARTICLES

California Court Ruling Allows Pension Changes, August 26, 2016

How CalPERS has Created a Ticking Time Bomb, November 30, 2015

The Devastating Impact of Retroactive Pension Increases in California, April 27, 2015

Evaluating Total Unfunded Public Employee Retirement Liabilities in 20 California Counties, May 6, 2014

Sonoma County’s Pension Crisis – Analysis and Recommendations, January 12, 2014

The Sonoma County Retroactive Pension Increase: Gross Incompetence or Billion Dollar Scam?, April 15, 2012

How Retroactive Benefit Increases and Lower Returns Blew Up Sonoma County’s Pensions, April 5, 2012

 

West Contra Costa Healthcare District Goes Bankrupt Again; Time to Throw in the Towel

On October 20, the West Contra Costa County Healthcare District (WCCHD) filed for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy – its second such bankruptcy filing in ten years. In 2015, the district closed its one hospital – Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo – which had been hemorrhaging money for many years. Since WCCHD is insolvent and no longer operates a hospital, one might expect the district to simply dissolve; but instead it plans to continue collecting tax revenue and to do something, anything to justify its ongoing existence. As we explained in our 2015 study, California Healthcare Districts in Crisis, zombie public hospital districts exist across the state.

As reported in the East Bay Times, WCCHD decided to file for bankruptcy after a Davis, CA based hotel operator, Royal Guest Hotels, pulled out of a deal to buy the hospital building and eight acres of surrounding land owned by the district. In its filing, the district listed $5.4 million of cash and other current assets. The district also owns the hospital building and acreage, which appears to be worth something less than the $13.5 million Royal Guest Hotels had originally agreed to pay.

Against these assets, the district reported liabilities of over $100 million.  These include:

Type of Obligation Amount
Bonded Debt $ 57.0
Employee Pension Obligation 20.0
Loan from Contra Costa County 14.4
Workers Comp and Other Litigation Liabilities 4.0
General Trade Creditors 2.2
Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (due to Medicare overcharges) 1.9
Unemployment Liability (California Employment Development Department) 1.6
Total (Approximate) $101.1

Among WCCHD’s “General Trade Creditors” is the Contra Costa County Clerk who is owed $414,920 for biennial district election expenses.  When combined with the $14.4 million unsecured county loan, it appears that Contra Costa taxpayers are in jeopardy of losing almost $15 million from this bankruptcy proceeding.

In terms of income, the district receives about $9.5 million in tax revenue each year. That includes a $4 million allocation from the standard 1% ad valorem property tax paid by district residents – who live in the cities of Richmond, El Cerrito, San Pablo, Hercules and Pinole as well as adjacent unincorporated areas – and commercial property owners. These same taxpayers also pay a separate parcel tax ranging from $52 for a single-family home to $1040 for a large commercial or industrial property. Parcel tax revenues amount to $5.5 million per year and will continue indefinitely unless repealed.

Bondholders have first claim on the parcel tax revenues and receive interest at rates of up to 6.25%. The district is also paying employees now acting in caretaker roles as well as pensions to retired employees. In March 2016, the district had nine employees performing Information Technology, Finance, Security, Plant Operation, Housekeeping and Administrative roles with payroll running at an annual rate of $2.5 million. According to Transparent California, WCCHD made over $900,000 in pension payments during 2014.

So the property and parcel tax revenue will be used to pay bondholders, employees and pensioners for years to come. None of this benefits the community, which is among the poorest in the Bay Area.

One option would be to dissolve the district. The County could then retain the $4 million in annual ad valorem tax revenue, and sunset the parcel tax once the bondholders have been paid off. But such a financially prudent approach is not on WCCHD’s agenda. According to the district’s bankruptcy filing:

The District intends to use this Chapter 9 case to effect a Plan of Adjustment so that the District can satisfy, to the extent possible, its obligations to creditors and potentially expand operations aimed at enhancing the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the District or otherwise provide for the future of the District.

Such an approach is wasteful because the district would have to continue paying election expenses of over $400,000 every two years. It also involves maintaining a separate bureaucracy with the amorphous purpose of providing healthcare services without a hospital.

One possibility would be for the County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) to dissolve WCCHD over the objections of district management. Dissolving the district was one of a number of options presented in a study commissioned by the Contra Costa LAFCo. The study outlines dissolution steps and notes that a newly enacted state law, AB 2610, permits a district to be dissolved without the need for a costly election.

It is understandable that bureaucracies tend to perpetuate themselves. Directors and staff members believe that they are doing something important and (the latter) want to continue being paid. But when a public agency with taxing authority has outlived its purpose, it is essential that the agency be terminated so that it stops burdening the community that it no longer serves.

Note:  The bankruptcy filing is 4:16-bk-42917 and the case is being handled by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of California. Documents related to this case can be obtained electronically through the PACER system at a cost of $0.10 per page.

Construction Firms Fund Orange County School Bond Campaigns

Companies linked to the school construction industry have placed their November bets on a number of Orange County school bond ballot measures, a California Policy Center investigation of campaign contribution reports collected by the Orange County Registrar of Voters show.

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Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Rudd & Romo (AALRR) is a law firm with eight offices across California. AALRR has donated $2000 to Anaheim Elementary School District’s bond measure, $12,000 to Orange Unified School District and $1000 to Fountain Valley School District. AALRR claims to represent nearly half the school districts in California and has previously represented both districts.

Bernards Builders Management Services is a general contractor located in San Fernando. Bernards has donated $2000 to Anaheim Elementary’s bond measure and $5000 to Brea-Olinda Unified School District’s measure. Bernards has worked with Brea-Olinda before on the Brea-Olinda High School and Olinda Elementary School. The subcontracted architecture firm for the Brea projects, LPA, has donated $10,000 this election cycle to Orange’s bond measure.

Ledesma & Meyer Construction Company Inc (LMCCI), located in Rancho Cucamonga, is a construction firm that proclaims to have completed “over a billion dollars of public works and K-12 school district projects.” LMCCI previously contracted with Ocean View Unified School District on asbestos removal projects amounting to over $3.4 million. Ocean View USD has a $148 million bond measure this fall and among their proposed projects is additional asbestos removal. LMCCI has contributed $25,000 in support of Ocean View USD’s measure. LMCCI has also contributed $5000 to Anaheim Elementary bond measures.

Pocock Design Solutions, Inc. is a Tustin-based full service design firm. Pocock has completed design projects for both new construction and modernization in over 60 schools districts in California. Pocock has donated $1500 each to the Anaheim Elementary and Ocean View Unified School District bond measures.

All firms worked throughout Southern California on previous school construction projects.

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In addition to this election cycle, California Policy Center examined contributions in 2014 made by construction firms to two incumbent Orange USD board members. Vanir Construction Management, a general contractor with offices throughout the Southwestern United States, contributed $1000 each to Timothy Surridge and Rick Ledesma. In addition, Arcadis, a design and consultancy firm, contributed $2000 to Rick Ledesma. Both Ledesma and Surridge voted in favor placing Measure S before voters in Orange USD this fall.

There’s of course no guarantee any of these firms will win lucrative contracts associated with new funding from the ballot measures. California State Public Contract Code Section 100 requires local governments to offer all businesses “a fair opportunity to enter the bidding process, thereby stimulating competition in a manner conducive to sound fiscal practices” in order to “eliminate favoritism, fraud, and corruption in the awarding of public contracts.”

But concern about what some state officials call “pay to play” campaign contributions has risen. California State Treasurer John Chiang issued a press release in July on the subject of pay-to-play, specifically addressing bond underwriters.

“Preying on school districts eager to win voter approval for bond elections, municipal finance firms, including bond counsel, underwriters, and financial advisors, are offering to fund or provide campaign services in exchange for contracts to issue the bonds, once approved by voters,” Chiang warned.

The concern about pay-to-play is not limited to underwriters. The California Building Industry Association has donated over $1,500,000 to Proposition 51, a statewide measure that would allow the state of California to issue $9 million in bonds for the State School Facilities Fund. The builders are the second-largest contributor in support of the proposition.

Andrew Heritage is a California Policy Center fall Journalism Fellow. He is a doctoral student in political science at the Claremont Graduate University.

Why are the Economy and Incomes Growing So Slowly?

Why are so many people unhappy and angry?  Why is the electorate turning to populist candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?  Why are they so mad at the Washington D.C. establishment?  What’s the problem?

This is the second in a series of articles.  The first dealt with the fact that the cost of health care and education have been growing much faster than family incomes making these essential services unaffordable to more people.

This second article will discuss the other half of the problem, slow growth of the economy leading to low growth of household incomes and the shortage of good quality jobs.

The most important economic question facing the U.S. is how do we grow the economy faster?  Faster growth solves a lot of problems.  Growth increases government tax revenues without any tax rate increases, adds jobs and increases wages, and makes our debts and entitlement obligations easier to support.

Since the end of the Second World War until about 2000, the economy as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) grew an average of 3.5 %/year for over 50 years.  At that growth rate, the economy doubles about every 20 years raising incomes and living standards.  This is real GDP growth, nominal or current dollar GDP less inflation, as reported by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Since 2000, the economy has grown less than 2.0 %/year.  This year, 2016, the economy has only grown about 1.5 %/year so far.  The latest official forecasts by the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve forecast real growth of only about 2.0 %/year.

The difference between 3.5%/year growth and 2.0%/year growth is not 1.5%, it’s almost 60% less, a very big deal.  What’s happening?  Why the slowdown and why can’t we grow the economy faster?  According to Stanford economist John Cochrane, “restoring sustained, long-term economic growth is the key to just about every economic and budgetary problem we face.”

If the economy had grown at 3.5%/year since 2000, the economy today would be $3.0 trillion larger and household incomes would be an estimated 18% larger, about $10,000 per household.

On a per capita basis, adjusting for a growing population, GDP has grown about 2.2 %year from the end of the Second World War until 2000.   But since 2000, GDP per capita has only been growing about 0.9%/year, a major slowdown.

A consequence of slower GDP growth is slower growth of wages and household incomes.  The Median household income peaked at $57,900 (2015 constant dollars) in 1999 when Bill Clinton was president. It is now $56,500 as of the end of 2015.  There is no improvement when adjusted for inflation.

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In addition, real average hourly wages have been flat at about $21/hour for decades, according to the Pew Research Center.

Where does growth come from anyway?

It’s really simple.  The economy only grows due to two factors, an increase in total hours worked (people with jobs) and productivity improvements (output per hour worked).

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Total labor hours are based upon the percent of the population of working age times the labor force participation rate (the % of the workforce employed or looking for work), and the average hours worked per employed person.

Demographics are leading to slower growth in the work force, from an average of about 1.2 %/year since World War II to about 2000 to about 0.5%/year today.

The more serious problem is below trend productivity growth.  This is especially serious since productivity improvements are the only source of rising living standards (higher incomes).  Without productivity improvements, we’d have on average the same incomes as our parents and grandparents. Non-farm business sector labor productivity growth has averaged about 2.2%/year from the end of the Second World War to 2000 but has dropped to less than 1.0%/year since then.  Over the past year, productivity grew at only 0.6%/year.

At 2.2%/year, incomes double about every 33 years.  At 1.0%/year, it takes about 70 years to double incomes.

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Let’s take a closer look at productivity first, then the labor force.

Why is productivity so low and what can we do about it?

To quote John Cochrane again, “Nothing other than productivity matters in the long run.”  It’s the only source of rising living standards.  However, the U.S. Federal Reserve believes that productivity growth will remain low for an “extended period of time.”  Why?

What could be the causes of the productivity slowdown?  Is it a permanent condition or will productivity improve on its own over time?  Surprisingly, there is very little agreement on why we are seeing a slowdown in productivity growth or what to do about it.  We can’t come up with effective solutions if we don’t know what’s causing the problem.  Several reasons have been proposed for the slowdown:

  1. A pessimistic assessment: An explanation is advanced by Professor Robert Gordon in his latest book entitled The Rise and Fall of American Growth.  He makes a strong argument that the growth we’ve seen over the past 250 years could be a unique episode in history.  There is no guarantee that we will progress at the same rate in the future.  Yes, we have the Internet and other recent advances.  However, they will not have the same impact on productivity and growth as, for example, the steam engine, indoor plumbing, electricity, and the internal combustion engine.  The major inventions that replaced repetitive manual and clerical labor happened in the past.  Recent inventions have centered on entertainment and communications and have made things smaller, cheaper, and more capable but don’t do much to enhance labor productivity.  The Internet may add to our convenience and entertainment but may not do much to boost productivity.  Are the Internet and wireless communications a problem?  On average, we spend a lot of unproductive time on social media and talking on our ever-present cell phones.

Others disagree with Gordon’s conclusions and say we just need more time for exciting new technologies to impact productivity.

  1. The switch from manufacturing to services: To date, productivity improvements have been lower in the labor intensive service sector of the economy which now makes up about 80% of nonfarm employment in the U.S.  There are more than 6 jobs in the service sector for every manufacturing (goods producing) job.

Health care, education, and government employment are an increasing share of the GDP and show low to no productivity growth.  They make up about 57% of the economy.  If the right kind of investment, new technologies, and other changes eventually lead to major productivity improvements in services such as retail, education, health care, and banking and finance, then output per service worker could rise.

  1. A potentially more optimistic assessment: Stanford Professor John Taylor and others believe that the decline in productivity is largely due to poor economic policies. There is a lot of unrealized potential that can be made available by making changes to improve productivity and get more people back into the workforce. In the past, there have been large swings in productivity growth depending upon government policies in effect at the time.  Professor Taylor concludes that today’s low productivity growth is largely due to a lower rate of investment in capital stock per worker.  This can be corrected by tax and regulatory reforms.

Note that investment in new equipment, software, and new product development is the primary means by which better tools and technology get into the hands of workers and contribute to productivity improvements.

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Part of the problem is that U.S. businesses are going into debt, $793 billion in 2015, largely to pay for stock buybacks and mergers and acquisitions rather than for productive investments in new equipment and new technology.  This “financial engineering” bids up stock prices and makes stock options more valuable for company executives.  These investments do nothing to improve productivity or add jobs.

Our tax code is probably discouraging capital investments.  There are also disincentives associated with the increasing number of government regulations at the state and federal level. Do we have too much bureaucracy?  The Dodd-Frank bill on banking reform was 2,300 pages long.  The Affordable Care Act was 961 pages long.  Each spawned thousands of pages of detailed regulations applied to the banking system and the health care industry.

Labor force growth:

The other reason for low GDP growth is the slower growth of the workforce in the U.S. from about 1.2%/year until about 2000, and 0.5%/year since then.  This is due to the ending of the baby boom, the increasing percentage of older retired citizens, and the fact that the percentage of working age women in the workforce is no longer increasing.  There has also been an increase in the number of people who are discouraged and no longer looking for work, mainly working age men.  This leads to a slower growing labor force.

This is reflected in the labor force participation rate, the percentage of the working age population who are employed or actively looking for work.  The participation rate peaked at 67% in 2000 and has since declined to slightly less than 63% today.  Due to this decline in the participation rate, there are over 7.0 million fewer people in the workforce.  Professor Taylor points out that only a small portion of this decline can be attributed to retiring baby boomers.  The rest is due to people deciding to exit the workforce for various reasons such as finding it difficult to find a job or deciding to apply for disability benefits instead.

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If the participation rate could be raised to say 65 percent over 5 to 7 years, this would add more than 1.0 million people to the civilian labor force each year and double the growth of the labor force from 0.5 percent/year to 1.1 percent/year and increase GDP growth by the same amount.

The Federal Reserve says that we have achieved full employment, meeting their target of 5.0%.  Is this true? If we account for those who have dropped out of the workforce and those who are working part-time but want full-time work, the unemployment rate would be 9.7%.  There are a lot of people who are working in low paying jobs or working part-time even though they want to work full-time.

The percent of the male working age population who are in the workforce has been declining for a long time from 86% in the 1950s to 75% in 2000, and down to 69% today.  There are a lot of discouraged men who are no longer looking for work.

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Where do jobs come from anyway?

Government tax policies and regulations can encourage or discourage investment, business expansion, and job creation.  But the government can’t create jobs no matter what politicians say.  Jobs are created when someone in the private sector expands an existing business or starts a new business.  Each job created requires a substantial investment plus other startup expenses and a lot of hard work by someone. This investment varies from $25,000/job or more for a fast food restaurant employing minimum wage “burger flippers” to $ millions/job for a high-tech factory to manufacture jet engines or microprocessors.  Policies that discourage investment and business growth are job killers.

Ominously, there has been a marked slowdown in the number of job producing startups.  In addition, since about 2008, the number of firms that have gone out of business has exceeded the number of startups.

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If we improve productivity it will mean fewer jobs in today’s businesses that can produce more with less labor.  That is an issue and always has been.  However, we have been able to count on the private sector to create new jobs and new businesses to replace jobs that have been lost due to changes in technology and other causes.  For this to happen in the future, we need to be sure that investors and entrepreneurs have strong incentives to invest in new businesses and the expansion of existing businesses to provide enough jobs in the future.

We also need to figure out what needs to be done to offset some of the wage differential between the U.S. and lower wage countries if we want U.S. and foreign companies to choose to locate or expand facilities here.

So what?

If Professor Taylor and others are right, there is a lot of untapped potential in today’s economy.  If it is possible to increase productivity and get more people into the labor force, then it is possible to boost GDP growth from the recent 2.0%/year to 3.0%/year or higher with the right government policy changes.  However, do we have the political will needed to make these changes?

The next article in this series will look at the government’s 10 year forecast and its implications.

A later article will look in more detail at possible ways we might be able to increase GDP growth by improving the labor participation rate and raising productivity growth.

About the Author:

William Fletcher is a business executive with interests in public finance and national security. He retired as Senior Vice President at Rockwell International where most of his career was spent on international operations and business development for Rockwell Automation. Before joining Rockwell, he worked for Bechtel Corporation, McKinsey and Company, Inc., and Combustion Engineering’s Nuclear Power Division, and was an officer and engineer in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear program. His international experience includes expatriate assignments in Hong Kong, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Canada. In addition to his interest in California’s finances, he is involved in organizations dealing with national security and international relations. Fletcher is a graduate of Tufts University with a BS degree in Engineering and a BA degree in Government. He also graduated from the U.S. Navy’s Bettis Reactor Engineering School.

In a Political Campaign, City Officials Can Spend Your Money Against You. They Call it 'Education'

This commentary appeared first in the Orange County Register.

Californians going to the polls on Nov. 8 will find more than 300 measures to raise taxes. And despite multiple legal decisions limiting the practice, municipal officials in California may be paying outside consultants to run the campaign to sell you on your local tax measure.

In short, government officials use the public’s money to persuade the public to give government officials more money.

If you think that’s strange, you have good company. In the 1976 case Stanson v. Mott, the California Supreme Court established the principle that would seem to govern the space where government reaches out like the muscular and fully clothed God in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” and encounters a single naked, relatively powerless American voter. The judges put it plainly: “A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in a election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several factions.”

The justices allowed that providing information and opinion – educating the public – is a legitimate function of government officials.

But how do we decide what’s political and what’s merely educational?

In the 2009 landmark case Vargas v. City of Salinas, the court returned to the distinction between information and campaigning, and the “style, tenor or timing” standard, says Thomas Brown, city attorney for St. Helena, California, and a partner in the Oakland offices of Burke Williams & Sorensen.

“The potential danger to the democratic electoral process is not presented when a public entity simply informs the public of its opinion on the merits of a pending ballot measure or of the impact on the entity that passage or defeat of the measure is likely to have,” says Brown. “The threat to the fairness of the electoral process arises when a public entity devotes funds to campaign activities favoring or opposing such a measure.”

But throughout the state, public officials increasingly turn to campaign consultants. Wave a magic wand and you can declare that politicking “educational.”

Take the city of Stanton. In the run-up to a controversial 2014 local sales tax measure, city officials in Stanton made 16 payments totaling $85,970 to Lew Edwards Group, an Oakland-based political consulting firm.

The consultant’s Stanton proposal indicates the relationship was always about winning a campaign. Sent to city officials on March 18 of that year, that document declares Lew Edwards Group “the California leader in Local Government Revenue Measures.”

“Lew Edwards Group has successfully enacted more than $30 billion in California tax and revenue measures with a 95 percent success rate, including $2.34 billion in successful tax and bond measures in Orange County alone,” the proposal says. In a separate PowerPoint document prepared for the city, company officials said they achieved political success in Orange County despite “the opposition of the OC Register in all cases.”

The company’s 2011 presentation to the California Society of Municipal Finance Officials is equally political. Titled “New Taxes: How to Get to Yes,” the presentation features a section on transforming informational studies into what sounds remarkably like campaign material. That section is called “Turning Theory into Reality: How to Convert Your City Studies and Polling Results into a Winning Campaign.”

The consultants’ website warns, “A Public Agency cannot, at any time, engage in a partisan campaign.” But the site goes on to offer advice about turning over campaign responsibilities to an outside group.

In the months leading up to Election Day 2014, Stanton residents were invited to community meetings where local elected officials, city staff and county firefighters and sheriff’s deputies warned them about Stanton’s crippled finances. When they returned to their homes, residents were hammered by official mailers predicting a public-safety catastrophe if the sales-tax measure failed. Invoices show the city (i.e., the taxpayers themselves) paid Lew Edwards for at least three mailers in the last six weeks of the campaign.

Supporters of such spending – generally public officials themselves – say government has a responsibility to educate. And now it’s possible for government officials to argue further, that they have a First Amendment right to support ballot measures. In the Vargas v. City of Salinas case, Salinas officials ultimately filed an anti-SLAPP suit against the plaintiffs, two local citizen watchdogs who had filed suit to stop the city from spending public dollars on a campaign. Revealing how far we’ve drifted from a fear of government power, a court ultimately sided with Salinas, and ordered the watchdogs to pay the city’s $200,000 legal bill. The plaintiffs have since declared bankruptcy.

There may yet be a new ending in Stanton. There, critics of the 2014 sales tax rallied, and late last year qualified a repeal measure for the November ballot.

But once again, those citizens will be fighting more than City Hall. Records obtained by the California Policy Center show Stanton officials signed a new contract with Lew Edwards Group. This time, officials say they’ll spend no more than $25,000. But like the last big contract, this one ends just days before Election Day.

Will Swaim is vice president of communications at the Tustin-based California Policy Center, and was founding editor of OC Weekly.