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“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.
Get a state job and meet your labor rep: How state budget protects California unions, Sacramento Bee, June 21, 2017
AB 52, Public employees: orientation and informational programs: exclusive representatives, California Legislature
Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Supreme Court of the United States Blog
SB 285, Atkins. Public employers: union organizing, California Legislature
2017-2018 budget trailer bill, AB 119, California Legislature
California Public Records Act, Office of the Attorney General
Fact Sheet – AB 52 (Cooper) & SB 285 (Atkins), California Labor Federation
Legislative Bulletin – California School Employees Association
SB 285: Public Employers Cannot Discourage Union Membership, Public Employee Relations Board
Public employee unions wield hefty Atkins stick [SB 285], San Diego Reader
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.
(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.
Marin County Board of Supervisors, 7/30/2013 Minutes (ref. item 3, page 1)
Marin County Board of Supervisors, Meeting Archives
Marin County Citizens for Sustainable Pension Plans
Marin County 2015-2016 Consolidated Annual Financial Report
Marin County Archive of Consolidated Annual Financial Reports
Transparent California, 2016 salary and benefit payments for Marin County
Governor Brown’s proposal to borrow money to fund CalPERS is similar to a move by Puerto Rico in 2008. That step backfired and now Puerto Rico is bankrupt.