State court punches union-backed ‘judge’ in the head

If you’re wondering how far unions and the California officials will go to kill any reform of the state’s overburdened public pension system, wonder no more: consider instead the final chapter, last week, in a state agency’s long-running effort to invalidate San Diego’s 2012 citywide vote to reform pensions.

The good news: a California appeals court rejected the agency’s efforts last week. But it’s still shocking the agency’s officials would have even argued that a union’s right to negotiate pay and benefits trumps is the public’s right to hold an election.

The story began in 2012, when San Diego reformers collected 116,000 signatures to place Proposition B before the voters. The measure moved newly hired city workers (excluding police) from a guaranteed pension to a 401(k) retirement program. It also put a five-year freeze on payroll spending as a way to cap “pensionable pay” and reduce unfunded liabilities.

A large majority of the city’s voters, 66 percent, approved the measure. Unlike a measure that passed in San Jose on the same day and was subsequently gutted by the courts, San Diego’s did not reduce benefits for current employees and has therefore not run afoul of something known as the “California Rule.” That rule forbids officials from reducing vested benefits for government employees, even for future work.

Even though San Diego’s Proposition B has passed court muster, state officials and unions continued to fight it. The agency is California’s little-known Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), and it’s responsible for implementing various union-related statutes and remedying “unfair labor practices.” A majority of its members have worked for public-sector unions, which gives you a sense of its political tilt.

PERB entered the fight early, suing to keep Proposition B off of the ballot. That suit failed, the ballot measure succeeded wildly, and for the last five years PERB has been trying to invalidate the results of that election, based on a dubious premise. California law requires cities to “meet and confer” with public-sector unions over any proposed changes to their benefits. Because the initiative tinkers with such benefits, the agency claims that city officials were required to first negotiate with the unions over the proposed pension changes.

Their argument would have some merit had the city government placed the initiative on the ballot, but this was a citizen initiative. To get around that problem, PERB came up with a novel theory. “They argue that Proposition B is not really a citizen initiative, but is a ‘sham’ initiative placed on the ballot by ‘straw men’ acting for San Diego’s mayor who supported and campaigned for the measure,” explained then-city attorney Jan Goldsmith, in a San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed in 2012. He depicted the PERB effort as an assault on San Diegans’ constitutional rights.

The agency’s argument was built on the fact that San Diego’s mayor and two council members backed the initiative, and worked on its behalf as private citizens. Therefore, PERB argued, Proposition B needed to be treated like a city-sponsored initiative.

PERB is an administrative agency that acts as its own police force, judge and jury. Its administrative law “judge” issued a 58-page ruling determining that “the city breached its duty to meet and confer in good faith” with various unions.

The agency could have saved 57 pages of verbiage; the outcome was never really in doubt. Former San Diego councilman Carl DeMaio, a pension-reform backer, termed it a “kangaroo court,” which is an apt description of PERB and other similar administrative agencies. The “judge” is actually an agency employee. The agency is no fair and balanced arbiter of the facts, but is a union-controlled agency that advances union prerogatives.

PERB insisted that new hires in San Diego be retroactively granted those big defined-benefit pensions – plus interest. But the city appealed the agency’s decision to a real court, thus resulting in last week’s decision. “(A) city has no obligation … to meet and confer before placing a duly qualified citizen-sponsored initiative on the ballot, and only owes such obligations before placing a governing-body-sponsored ballot proposal on the ballot,” the appeals court ruled.

What about PERB’s assertion that city officials cannot ever act as private citizens? “We further conclude PERB’s fundamental premise … is legally erroneous,” the court concluded.

A PERB victory in the case would have cost the city of San Diego $20 million.

PERB’s gambit almost worked, however. As a Union-Tribune editorial pointed out, had San Diego’s city attorneys not challenged the ruling, and had its mayor and city council not voted to appeal the decision, PERB’s assault on voting rights would have stood. “Luckily, an appeals court delivered taxpayers and voters a major victory, safeguarding San Diegans’ right to limit city worker pensions – while also protecting Californians’ constitutional right to direct democracy …,” the newspaper rightly opined. So the city – and voters statewide – dodged a bullet.

The victory was sweet, but there’s something wrong with the way the system is rigged in favor of union prerogatives. We have the state using its official powers to squelch a local reform initiative. Last week for California Policy Center, I detailed how state attorneys general often give biased titles and summaries to pension reform initiatives as a way to strangle them in the cradle. It’s hard to overcome all of these official obstacles.

PERB is an annoyance, but the biggest statewide reform obstacle remains that California Rule. On that above-mentioned state Supreme Court matter, the court has agreed without comment to accept an appeal from a firefighters’ union. The union is challenging a unanimous San Francisco appeals court ruling that upheld the California Public Employees Pension Reform Act of 2013. The law mostly alters pensions for new hires, but also limits some pension-spiking gimmicks by current employees.

The firefighters claim that restrictions on “airtime” – i.e., their ability to purchase additional requirement credits – is a violation of their constitutional rights. A Marin County case also making its way to the high court involves five unions who likewise claim that other limits on pension spiking violate the California Rule. In the Marin case, a court ruled that “while a public employee has a ‘vested right’ to a pension, that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension – not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension.”

If the Supreme Court agrees, that could finally whittle away at the rule. Between that and the court’s willingness to put the brakes on PERB, reformers have  reason for optimism. The good news is the result of the overreach of public-employee unions, who are so used to getting their way that they were willing to challenge the constitutional right to an election and defend the most indefensible pension-spiking gimmicks. Perhaps they’ve gone too far.

Steven Greenhut is contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a columnist for the Orange County Register. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

Democratic Attorneys General are the True Masters of Vote Suppression

California Democrats have in recent years complained bitterly about alleged voter intimidation by Republicans and have even gone as far as opening a “voter intimidation hotline” before the Nov. 4 election. Staffed by attorneys, the hotline would answer legal questions by voters who believed that Donald Trump supporters were trying to squelch their vote.

Evidence of any such intimidation was never forthcoming. And it’s hard to argue – with a straight face, anyway – that Republicans have mastered voter suppression in a state where Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 4.2 million votes, and where Democrats picked up congressional seats and snatched supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.

There’s strong evidence, however, of a long-known pattern of voter suppression at the highest levels of California government, but instead of starting a hotline, the state’s Democratic leaders are aiding and abetting the effort. I’ve reported on the problem many times over the years, but fortunately the matter received renewed attention in a CALmatters report published in the Los Angeles Times last week.

“More than 20 times in the last 15 years, political leaders looking to control California’s fast-growing public pension costs have tried to put reform initiatives before the voters,” reported Judy Lin. Yet none of the measures even made it to the ballot. Sometimes the problem was the fault of inadequate fund-raising or signature gathering, but the main problem is more disconcerting.

“Some of the most promising efforts … ran into a different kind of obstacle: an official summary, written by the state attorney general, that described the initiative in terms likely to alienate voters,” according to the report. Facing such a large hurdle, backers ditched the proposals. As pension-reform backers say, these union-friendly politicians “put a finger on the scale, distilling the initiatives in language that echoed labor’s rhetoric.”

Isn’t this a form of high-level voter suppression, where state officials are accused of using their powers to squelch a vote to benefit powerful special-interest groups?

In California, the state attorney general is responsible for writing short titles and summaries of all proposed ballot initiatives. Most voters don’t read the long and legalistic details of the proposed ballot measures. Too few spend time researching the proposals on their own. Instead, voters typically – and understandably – peruse these short explanations and vote based on the concise information the state AG provides them.

Quite obviously the “Mom and Apple Pie” initiative is more likely to succeed than the “Throw Momma over the Cliff” initiative. Backers can challenge a bad title in court, but that delays the process, costs a lot of money and such challenges are hard to win given the deference given the attorney general. After getting a negative title and summary and “facing bleak prospects at the polls,” pension-reform backers “abandoned the campaigns,” according to the report. Why scare away voters when you can keep the vote from ever happening?

Attorney generals and their defenders insist that their titles and summaries are fair and that complaints are merely the result of disgruntled political activists. Union spokespeople praise the fairness of the pension-reform information, but plenty of observers from all political perspectives roll their eyes in disgust at this charade.

In 2012, a bipartisan group of pension reformers submitted two initiatives to the attorney general designed to rein in the growing costs of the state’s pension system. At the time (and to this day), such reforms have widespread public support, according to polls. The unions, by the way, are among the state’s best-funded political activists and had plenty of ammunition to fight the measure had it made it to a general-election ballot.

But California Attorney General Kamala Harris, now U.S. senator, didn’t give both sides the opportunity to fight it out on the airwaves and at the ballot box. Her title for the initiative said the measure “Reduces pensions for public employees,” even though it would not have reduced pensions for current public employees.

Even the Modesto Bee’s liberal editorial page was aghast: “Her office’s official description of the two measures read like talking points taken straight from a public employee union boss’ campaign handbook. Harris claimed the measures would reduce retirement income for current employees, which is not true. She also claimed that future government employees would lose survivor and death benefits, also not true.”

As I wrote for the Orange County Register at the time, “The summary also described ‘cuts’ to ‘teachers, nurses and peace officers, but excluding judges.’ That’s campaign rhetoric, not the dispassionate description of a fair-minded AG.” Polls show that the public has strongly positive views about teachers, nurses and police officers, so she apparently mentioned those job categories to create a negative view of the proposed reform.

When pension reformers were crafting another measure in 2013 and 2014, the Los Angeles Times penned an editorial imploring Harris to be fair-minded in the summary. “It shouldn’t be necessary to urge Harris or any California attorney general to be impartial,” the newspaper wrote. “Under state law, the attorney general is responsible for writing an evenhanded title and summary not ‘likely to create prejudice.’ Yet too often attorneys general, who are partisan elected officials, insert their own politics into the work.”

As it turns out, it was necessary to urge Harris to be fair, although it didn’t do much good. That initiative proposal, backed by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, a Democrat, would have tackled the so-called California Rule. That’s a court interpretation (rather than an actual rule) that forbids agencies from reducing public-employee pensions from even going forward.

Pension reformers do not want to reduce benefits that public employees already have accrued. But that initiative would have allowed agencies to reduce benefits starting tomorrow. There’s no way to get control of the pension crisis as unfunded liabilities (the public-backed debt to pay for all the pension promises) exceed $1 trillion, under some estimates. Reforms for just new hires don’t do much until those new hires start retiring – in 30 years or so.

But Harris’ summary said the proposed measure “eliminates constitutional protections for vested pension and retiree healthcare benefits for current public employees, including teachers, nurses, and peace officers, for future work performed,” which reads more like a union-written argument against it than a fair-minded summary. It was, as expected, the kiss of death. Backers sued, but lost. As I mentioned before, it’s really difficult to win these challenges.

Various news reports showed that the Harris language closely mimicked information from a polling firm that was working on behalf of labor unions: “Note that ‘eliminating’ fosters a visceral negative response from voters,” according to the firm’s memo. “Over 50 percent are VERY unfavorable to ‘Eliminating Police, Firefighters, and Other Public Employees’ Vested Pension Benefits’ …”

It’s not just Harris who used her power to keep these initiatives from getting before voters. Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer, another union ally and Harris’ predecessor, killed a pension-reform plan by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger by claiming that a fairly modest measure would have robbed future police officers of their death and disability benefits.

The reform measure never mentioned any such thing, but Lockyer was able to make that argument because “the governor’s advisors appeared to have overlooked a key detail: death and disability benefits were tied to guaranteed details,” according to CALmatters. It was a dubious argument, but Lockyer’s approach enabled unions to energize “widows of slain police officers to speak out against Schwarzenegger’s proposal.”

For years, then, it seems that Democratic attorney generals have been using their power to kill pension-reform initiatives that offend their union constituencies by using their official power to write titles and summaries. It’s less obvious than sending goons to polling places to scare away voters, but it’s far more effective at squelching the vote. With more and more California local governments sinking under the weight of pension obligations, it may be time to allow democracy (with a small-d to work).

Steven Greenhut is a contributing editor to the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a columnist for the Orange County Register. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

$100k Pension Club

Questions for Someone Who Supports Superior Benefits for Government Workers

Environmentalism Provides Moral Cover for New Taxes to Fund Pensions

Put Public Employees on Secure Choice and Social Security

“The state shall not have any liability for the payment of the retirement savings benefit earned by program participants pursuant to this title.” – California State Senator Kevin De Leon, August 7, 2016, Sacramento Bee

This quote from Senator De Leon, one of the main proponents of California’s new “Secure Choice” retirement program for private sector workers, says it all. Because De Leon’s comment reveals the breathtaking hypocrisy and stupefying innumeracy of California’s legislature.

Let’s start with hypocrisy.

De Leon is careful to protect private sector taxpayers from having to bail out their new state administered “secure choice” retirement plan, but no such safeguard has ever been seriously contemplated for the state administered pension plans for state and local government workers. These plans, using official numbers, are underfunded by about $250 billion. If you don’t assume California’s 92 state and local government worker pension systems can earn 7.5% per year, they are underfunded by much more – at least a half trillion.

Underfunded government worker pensions are the real reason why Prop. 55 is offered to voters to extend the “temporary” “millionaires tax” till 2030. That will raise about $6 billion per year. Underfunded local government worker pensions are also the reason for 224 local tax increases proposed on this November’s ballot, which if passed will collect another $3.0 billion per year. And it isn’t nearly enough.

The following table, excerpted from a recent California Policy Center study, shows how much California’s state and local government pensions systems have to collect per year based on various rates of return. At the time of the study, the most recent consolidated data available was for 2014. As can be seen – at a rate of return of 7.5% per year, state and local agencies have to put $38.1 billion into the pension funds. And at a rate of return of 6.5% per year, which CalPERS has already announced as their new “risk free” target rate, they have to turn over $52.3 billion per year. How much was actually paid in 2014? Only $30.1 billion.

20160516-cpc-ring-pension-liabilities

To summarize, in 2014 the pension funds collected $8.0 billion less than they needed if they think they can earn 7.5% per year. But following CalPERS lead, they’re lowering their projected rate of earnings to 6.5%, which means they were $22.2 billion short. There are 12.8 million households in California. That equates to at least $1,734 in additional taxes per household per year just to keep state and local pensions solvent.

And it gets worse. Because in order to ensure this new “Secure Choice” program doesn’t get into the same financial predicament that California’s government pension systems confront, the “risk free” rate of return they intend to project is not 7.5%, or 6.5%, or even 5.5%. No, they intend to initially invest the funds in Treasury Bills, which currently pay at most 2.5%. In an analysis of Secure Choice’s proposed costs and benefits performed last April, we express what using a truly “risk free” rate of return portends for California’s private sector workers vs. public sector workers. These estimates are based on all participants, public and private, contributing 10% to the fund via withholding.

Public sector:  Teachers/Bureaucrats, 30 years work  –  pension is 75% of final salary.

Public sector:  Public Safety, 30 years work – pension is 90% of final salary.

Private sector:  “Secure Choice,” 30 years work – pension is 27.6% of final salary.

There are two reasons for this gigantic disparity. First, public pension funds collect far more than 10% of salary. While the employee rarely pays more than 10% via withholding, the employer – that’s YOU, the taxpayer – typically kicks in another 20% to 40% or more, that is, a two-to-one up to a four-to-one employer matching contribution. Second, to justify the optimistic projections that make such generous pensions appear feasible, public pension funds have assumed a “risk free” rate of return of 7.5% per year.

Which brings us to innumeracy.

During the fiscal year ended 6/30/2015, CalPERS earned a whopping 2.4%. That stellar performance was followed in fiscal year ended 6/30/2016 by a return of 0.6%. It doesn’t take a Ph.D economist to know that California’s pension funds are going to need to greatly increase their annual collections. It only takes horse sense. But even horse sense eludes California’s innumerate lawmakers.

So here’s a modest proposal. Why not freeze the employer contributions into California’s state and local employee pension funds at 20% of salary (that’s a two-to-one match on a 10% contribution via withholding), and then, constrained by those fixed percentages, lower all benefits, for all participants, on a pro-rata basis to restore solvency. Better yet, why not enroll every state and local government employee in the Secure Choice program? Either way, “the state shall not have any liability for the payment of the retirement savings benefit earned by program participants.”

Along with this modest step towards dismantling the excessive privileges of these unionized Nomenklatura who masquerade as California’s public “servants,” why not enroll all state and local government employees in Social Security? Because California’s public servants make far more, on average, than private sector workers, and because Social Security benefits are calibrated to pay relatively less to high income participants, this step will financially stabilize the program.

Senator De Leon, are you listening? When it comes to state administered programs, all of California’s workers, public and private, should get the same deal.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

“Unsustainable” Pension Costs Are The Driving Force Behind Local Tax Increases

It is no secret that there are a record number of local tax increases on the November 2016 ballot, but the dirty little secret is that the strongest driving force behind these measures is “unsustainable” skyrocketing pension costs.

The specifics of each case need to be evaluated on a case by case basis, which I have done, but the simple conclusion remains a vote for local tax increases is essentially a vote for more government revenue to pay for an explosion in pension costs for public employees.

Each local story is different, and there maybe a few outliers that I have not found thus far, but if you examine the data closely the evidence is there to prove this assertion.

Most of these tax increases are sold as essential to provide some “essential” government function that polls well, such as roads, schools, or public safety, but the real effect is to allow the public agency to free up more funds to pay for the “crowding out effect” that pension costs are having on local budgets at all levels of government in California.

“There are more local revenue measures on California ballots this November than any of the five prior gubernatorial or presidential elections,” stated Michael Coleman, an expert in local government finance, who found that there are 427 measures proposed for the November 2016 ballot.  This number is 40-60% higher than any other election going back to November 2006.

A review of the measures reveals that the proposed local tax increases are concentrated in the parts of the state that also have the biggest pension problems, based on my research.

Moreover, a significant number of measures are even proposed in areas such as the Bay Area which have significant economic growth, and therefore growth in tax revenues, but these localities still say they need more money to cover large baseline increases in the cost of government, mostly due to pension and benefit costs.

If you examine local agency annual budgets, more than 80% of their cost increases are driven by pension costs, and other employee compensation benefits costs, particularly health care.

In the Bay Area alone, there are a record number of measures, despite rapid tax revenue growth of 4-10% over the past several years.  The growth in real gross domestic product has averaged just over 4% for the San Francisco—Oakland—Hayward metropolitan areas for 2014 and 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The biggest of these measures is the proposed $3.5 billion bond for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) which is paid for by parcel tax increases on homeowners in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties.

But a close analysis of the measure shows that $1.2 billion of the bond can actually go to pay for labor costs which are driving big budget deficits at BART, along with generous contract extensions approved in 2013 and 2016 that boost salaries by more than 30% for workers that were already the best paid transit workers in the nation.

Taxpayers in all three Bay Area counties taxed under the propose BART bond, also face a proposed 0.5%-0.75% sales tax increase for “transportation” and “general city services.”

There are a variety of other parcel taxes on the ballots in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties to pay for schools and school construction.  Voters in Alameda County face a hike in the utility users tax to “modernize” the tax at a cost of $9.6 million.

Voters in San Francisco face a proposed increase in the real property transfer tax on homes sold to raise $45 million and another “grocery tax” to raise another $7.5 million.

Why are all these taxes necessary?  Primarily to fund unsustainable benefit costs, not improvements in government services provided.

The City and County of San Francisco faces $16 billion in unfunded pension debt for all its public plans based on a “market rate” evaluation by Stanford University, and another $2 billion in debt for retiree health care.

Depite being one of the wealthiest cities in the state, San Francisco’s total net value (assets minus liabilities) is only $6.5 billion as of 2015, which is eclipsed by its pension debt by nearly three times.  And this debt continues to grow.

Alameda County has several cities and the county itself, but pension debt continues to be a problem for most localities, particularly the City of Oakland.

The City of Oakland faces a $3.5 billion unfunded market rate pension liability, despite record revenue growth, according to Pensiontracker.org.  In 2015, the city’s balance sheet went negative to the tune of $86 billion due to the inclusion of pension costs, down from a positive $1.2 billion in 2014.

Voters in Oakland also face the “grocery tax” on sweetened beverages to raise $10 to $12 million that is sold as being for “health and education programs” but the revenue can in effect be used to help pay for pension cost overruns.

Contra Costa County is another wealthy Bay Area County with surging revenues, but on paper the county is dead broke due to huge pension liabilities.  The market value of the county’s pension debt is $6.5 billion, which helped sink the county’s balance sheet in 2015 to a negative $192 million net value, down from $852 million in 2014.

Contra Costa County’s balance sheet will take another $500 million hit in 2017 when its unfunded retiree health care liabilities come onto the books.

San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa are some of the wealthiest and fasted growing in the state in terms of economic and revenue growth, yet they a seeing a continued decline in their balance sheets due to an unchecked explosion in the cost of government, particularly due to pension and other employee benefit costs such as health care.

Politicians who govern these counties and many others in the state, which are even in worse shape, are turning to voters to increase taxes for “essential” or popular government programs.

But the unspoken true is that the underlying cause of the record number of proposed tax increases is the inability of local governments to effectively manage their budgets, particularly with regard to “unsustainable” pension costs for public employees.

Don’t be fooled this November.  Every vote for a local tax increase is essentially a vote to reward bad behavior, poor fiscal management, mounting debt, and the state’s unsustainable system of public finance.

The whole system is propped up by powerful public employee union interests both in Sacramento and at the local level, so the only thing “essential” about these measures is that they are needed to continue to fund unaffordable benefit costs for a privileged class of public employees.

About the Author: David Kersten is an expert in public policy research and analysis, particularly budget, tax, labor, and fiscal issues. He currently serves as the president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy – a moderate non-partisan policy think tank and public policy consulting organization. The institute specializes in providing knowledge, evidence, and training to public agencies, elected officials, policy advocates, organization, and citizens who desire to enact public policy change.

Unfunded Pension Costs Driving Huntington Beach to Become More Like Ferguson, MO

It’s been 19 months since the U.S. Department of Justice released its scathing report on the Ferguson Police Department. Chief among the DOJ’s findings: Ferguson’s law enforcement practices were “shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than public safety needs.” Nearly every policing activity – including tickets, misdemeanor fines and court fees – was seen as an income opportunity.

That model led to tension between police and citizens, disrupting families and the community. When a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, on August 9, 2014, a city balancing on a knife’s edge toppled quickly into chaos.

Now what might be called Ferguson’s worst practices have been brought to Huntington Beach.

Last month, as the Orange County Register reported, the City Council approved a plan to hire a city prosecutor to handle misdemeanors.

“A significant number of misdemeanors go unprosecuted,” City Attorney Michael Gates told the Register, adding that the prosecutor will “add a lot of teeth to our laws.”

“There will be a whole class of crimes that will now be prosecuted where the DA may not have gotten to them,” Gates said. “We will prosecute every one of them until conviction.”

This comes on the heels of a proposal pushed through the council last year to substantially raise city fees and fines. Confronting a rising price tag for compensation for police and firefighters, then councilman, now mayor, Jim Katapodis put forward the plan as a means to cover the cost, and additional police officers.

Parking in front of a handicapped ramp will now cost you $356, an incredible jump from its former cost of $55. A glass container on the beach? Skateboarding? They’ll cost you $175 each, up from $125. There are others.

It’s not entirely surprising that Katapodis’ main public policy objective has been to increase the number of law enforcement officers to pre-recession numbers. He has spent his professional career in and around law enforcement. Police and fire unions have been staunch supporters, first backing Katapodis in 2010, when he ran for City Council while still an LAPD sergeant. According to Katapodis, adding more sworn officers is essential to ensure a safe city and should come at whatever cost necessary.

But over the last few years violent crime has been falling. And suspending basic accounting – adding more officers at higher pay – has driven Huntington Beach’s finances into the red.

City Council member Erik Peterson, who voted against the fee increases, said he didn’t understand how the city can start paying salaries without knowing how much they’ll receive from the increased fees.

In fact, H.B. owes $300 million on pensions for its retired city workers. That number was high enough to warrant a 2013 Moody’s investigative review. That review didn’t lead to a downgrade, but it’s a red flag.

In H.B., the Police Department is being expanded literally at the expense of the public, setting police against residents in a struggle not for public safety but for revenue. Critics say the mayor and City Council majority don’t even know how much revenue that parasitic system will generate. It’s equally clear they haven’t considered its costs. It cost Ferguson almost everything.

Matt Smith is a graduate student at Princeton Seminary, and a Journalism Fellow at the California Policy Center in Tustin.

For Nov. 8th: $32B in Local Borrowing, $2.9B in Local Tax Increases

New local taxes and new local borrowing are a regular phenomenon in California elections, but this year our government union controlled politicians have outdone themselves. Let’s compare:

November 2014 – $11 billion in new borrowing proposed via 118 local bond measures, 81% passed. Of the 117 local proposals for new taxes, 68% passed.

June 2016 – $6.2 billion in new borrowing proposed via 48 local bond measures, an estimated 93% passed. Of the 42 local proposals for new taxes, an estimated 66% passed.

November 2016 – $32.2 billion in new borrowing via 193 local bond measures, and 224 local proposals for new taxes!

Not only do these general and primary and special election tax and bond measures accumulate year after year, but they nearly always pass! The primary source for this information is the California Tax Foundation, who have just produced another excellent guide “Local Tax and Bond Measures 2016.” This time, they have not only compiled a list of all of the proposed local taxes and bonds, but for each of the proposed new local taxes, they have compiled the projected annual collections. The result is stunning.

2016 California Local Tax and Bond Measures
20160927-uw-local-taxes

As this table reports, $32.2 billion in new borrowing is being proposed, nearly all of it for schools and colleges. At 5.0% annual interest with a 30 year repayment plan, this borrowing will cost property owners another $2.0 billion per year in increased property taxes. If over 90% of these bonds are approved by voters, as recent history indicates is likely, California’s taxpayers will suddenly have saddled themselves with nearly $30 billion in new government debt.

Also as reported on the above table, the 224 proposed tax increases are estimated to cost taxpayers at least $2.9 billion per year. “At least,” because CalTax was unable to find revenue projections for 29 of them. And while “sin taxes” on marijuana and soda promise to bring in $58 million and $18 million, respectively, it is sales tax, that everyone pays, that will bring in most of the revenue, over $2.3 billion.

Because local taxes are numerous and dispersed onto hundreds of differing ballots across the state, they don’t get the visibility that state tax increases generate. But collectively they are just as significant. California’s Prop. 30, passed by voters in 2012, generated about $6.0 billion per year. That same tax, which was supposed to be temporary, will be extended through 2030 if voters approve Prop. 55 this year. But if you compare this statewide tax to the proposed local taxes, $2.9 billion per year, along with required payments on the local bonds, $2.1 billion per year, you are adding another $5.0 billion annual burden to taxpayers.

Passing Prop. 30 was a major fight. Similarly, Prop. 55 has huge visibility with voters. But because nearly all of the local measures pass, and because dozens if not hundreds of them appear on the ballot every election, local taxes and bonds matter more. Invisible, ongoing, and ever expanding, they are silently elevating the cost-of-living for ordinary Californians as much or more than state taxes.

Where does this money really go? Why is there an insatiable thirst for more taxes and more borrowed funds?

One word:  Pensions. One cause:  Government unions and their allies in the financial community, who together comprise what is by far the most potent political lobby in California.

A May 2016 analysis by the California Policy Center, using the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, estimated that during 2014, California’s 80+ independent state/local government employee pension systems received $30.1 billion in contributions (ref. table 2-A). Later in that same report, on table 2-C which is displayed below, one can see how much these pension systems actually need to remain financially healthy. At a minimum, they are collecting $8.0 billion per year LESS than they need. And that is if the investments they’ve made yield an annual return of 7.5% per year for the next 30 years. At the modest reduction of that projection to 6.5% – which even CalPERS has announced they are going to phase in as their new projection for calculating required annual contributions, these pension systems are collecting $22.2 billion per year LESS than they need.

California State/Local Pension Funds Consolidated
2014 – Est. Funding Status and Required Contributions at Various ROI

20160516-CPC-Ring-pension-liabilities

If California’s state and local government workers participated in Social Security like the rest of California’s workers, instead of receiving guaranteed defined benefit pensions that on average pay FOUR TIMES what Social Security recipients can expect, there would be no insatiable need for more money for the pension systems. Even if California’s state and local government workers merely received defined benefits that paid, on average, TWICE what Social Security recipients can expect, these pension funds would currently have surpluses. Moreover, there would be money left over in local municipal and school district operating budgets to maintain facilities, instead of having to perpetually borrow.

Six billion per year ala Prop. 30 and Prop. 55. Another five billion per year thanks to new proposed local taxes and borrowing just this November. And it’s not even close to enough. California’s state and local government pension systems are going to need somewhere between $50 to $60 billion per year to stay afloat, and currently they’re collecting barely more than half that much.

No wonder there’s the perennial scramble for more. More. MORE.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

The Case for Limited Government is Now Stronger Than Ever

I have studied U.S. and California politics in particular since the mid-1990s, and believe the case for limited government is stronger now, than at any other time in history.

A series of emerging trends have coalesced to produce a political environment that makes it very unwise to try to enact sweeping policy change in today’s political environment (with the exception of an outright repeal of failed government programs).

A major treatise could be written on the subject, but here are some of the key considerations that led me to this conclusion.

First, there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of our elected leaders. To put it bluntly, many politicians are just in it for themselves and purport to pursue the public’s interest only as a means to their own ends.

The ramifications of this trend are huge and have served to give public interests more power over the political process and make it impossible in many cases to enact legislation that is within the public’s interest.

Second, the country’s political economy has gotten increasingly complex which makes it more difficult than ever to craft responsible public policy that is capable of addressing a policy problem not only today, but over a significant time period.

Third, the increasing polarization in the electorate, and reflected in U.S. governing bodies, make it extremely difficult, and more commonly impossible, to substantially revise a public policy once it has been approved.

Many examples could be provided to prove the validity of these assertions, but let’s look at a few case studies.

At the federal level, there is no better recent example than Obamacare. The policy was sold as being the best of all worlds expanding coverage, reducing costs, and improving the business climate in the process.

The only thing Obamacare has done well is expand coverage, but this has come at a great cost in the form of double digit annual cost increases on individuals, business, and government itself.

Without question, the program needs some major fixes to restore at least short-term viability and there are no signs that the political consensus needed to bring such change could be achieved. The result is a government program that is completely unsustainable, but has nonetheless provided health coverage to tens of millions more Americans which makes it impossible for anyone to advocate an outright repeal without a replacement.

Obamacare is looking like another example of a major government program that was enacted with very good intentions, but cannot be made sustainable over the long-run due to the huge complexity of the issue and the inability of the U.S. Congress to come anywhere close to the consensus needed to reform it. Two other examples: Social Security and Medicare, both unsustainable, yet almost politically untouchable.

At the state level, the pension crisis is an excellent example which holds ramifications for the long-term health of state government that equal or exceed Obamacare, Social Security, and Medicare combined.

The Public Employee Pension Crisis has the potential to entirely bankrupt the State of California

The Public Employee Pension Crisis has the potential to entirely bankrupt the State of California and all of its public agencies. Stanford University had measured the unfunded pension liabilities at $950 billion in 2013, but more recent estimates peg the debt at around $1.5 trillion for 2016.

 

In California, the level of retirement benefits provided to public employees is unaffordable to most public agencies in California, and is not currently being covered through contributions raised from public employers, and to a far less extent public employees.

The result is a massive run up is debt for nearly all state and local public agencies in California. In 2013, the total debt for unfunded pension liabilities was estimated at $950 billion, according to Stanford University. But more recent calculations for 2016, peg the debt at $1.5 trillion 50% higher due to major investment losses and soaring benefit costs.

Public pension debt alone in California is currently estimated to equal $77,000 per household in 2013, according to Stanford University’s pension tracker.

Despite the magnitude of the current pension crisis, there are only a handful of California Legislators who will even publicly admit that the pension crisis is a major issue in California. This is due to the fact that the state’s public employee unions control the California Democratic Party, and the Democrats run the California State Legislature.

The state’s pension crisis has the potential to bankrupt the State of California and nearly all of its public agencies, but there is not the faintest sign of a political consensus that will even admit that there is a major problem here, let alone consider a solution.

Furthermore, absent changes to the state’s pension system it makes no sense to further increase state and local tax revenues (i.e. tax and fee increases) since these increased revenues will simply go to fund overly generous and unsustainable public employee benefit costs which are increasing at 10-25% per year on average.

Private conversations with Republican legislators, who are the minority, indicate that they understand the issue and the need for reform but there is nothing to be gained by them going out on the issue short of a critical mass for reform.

Democrat legislators, on the other hand, support the status quo because the public employee unions bankroll their campaigns and the Democratic Party, and most if not all have already signed pledges to the state’s public employee unions to only increase public employee compensation, regardless of the consequences for the state.

Although the necessity for Pension Reform in CA seems to be obvious, many legislators seem unwilling & therefore unable to address the issue, largely due to the strong influence of Public Employee Unions when it comes to campaign financing of many within the state legislature.

Although the necessity for Pension Reform in CA seems to be obvious, many legislators seem unwilling & therefore unable to address the issue, largely due to the strong influence Public Employee Unions possess when it comes to campaign financing of many within the state legislature.

 

The state’s unsustainable public pension system is another example of a large government program gone bad, but nothing can be done to fix it given the circumstances of the state’s current political environment.

One last case study regarding the need for limited government is the state’s regulatory climate, which has an obvious parallel at the federal level but I will confine my discussion to the State of California.

The State of California’s regulatory climate is credited with being a key factor, along with high taxes, for encouraging more than 10,000 businesses to relocate out of state in recent years.

In a recent Inside Source interview with Stanford University Economics Professor Roger G. Noll, Noll states that California’s regulatory policies and practices are deeply flawed, but not necessarily enough to “drag Silicon Valley to Texas.”

Noll said most California legislators lack the capacity and inclination to craft responsible regulatory policy and that most regulation considered by the California Legislature is deeply flawed.

“We have pretty much a bankrupt system, it is rare to have a bill that is well crafted,” Noll stated.

Yet this does not stop the Democrat Legislature from developing bill after bill that seeks to regulate the California economy in almost every way imaginable. The sad truth is that the vast majority of this legislation is deeply flawed and will do more harm to the state’s business climate while providing little if any public benefit other than a political sound byte.

Moreover, most Democrats develop and pass regulatory legislation as a means to advance their careers and the policy agendas of their supporters, as opposed to advancing the public interest.

Thus, we have a Democrat majority whose primarily occupation is advancing their own agenda, as opposed to the public’s interest, without regard for the long-term consequences for the state’s business climate and economy.

If the Legislature cannot craft legislation in such as way that is beneficial and cost-effective it should just leave the issue alone, which brings us full circle to the need for limited government.

The increased complexity of the economy has dramatically increased the number of issues that can be regulated as well as the potential for harmful effects from poorly crafted legislation, which has become the rule in California, not the exception.

In other words, the best thing the California Legislature can do on most regulatory issues is do nothing. But political motivations necessitate the opposite due to a decline in the quality of our public leaders, primarily if not exclusively California Democrat politicians.

Then California Treasurer Bill Lockyer (D) saw this trend in 2010, noting that most of the legislation considered and passed in the California State Assembly is “junk” but lawmakers “move it along” to keep the special interests happy.

Lockyer also chastised the Democrat Legislature for its inability to address the state’s pension crisis because of who elected them (i.e. public employee unions) stating that it will “bankrupt the state” if nothing is done.

In short, government has reached a point in California, as well as at the federal level, where politicians cannot address the most important issues (i.e. failing government programs) due to political realities, but commonly do the wrong things in the areas where they can act.

The only solution is limited government. First, we must prevent more government programs from going on the books that will inevitably become unsustainable or unworkable, but impossible to fix. And second, we must limit politicians from advancing their own private agendas through legislation that actually does more harm than good.

About the Author: David Kersten is an expert in public policy research and analysis, particularly budget, tax, labor, and fiscal issues. He currently serves as the president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy – a moderate non-partisan policy think tank and public policy consulting organization. The institute specializes in providing knowledge, evidence, and training to public agencies, elected officials, policy advocates, organization, and citizens who desire to enact public policy change.

Proposition 13 Is Safe — For Another Few Weeks

The Legislature is in adjournment, and with lawmakers at home campaigning for reelection, they are unable to engage in their favorite pastime of undermining Proposition 13 and its protections for California taxpayers.

However, this time out is only a brief respite from the Sacramento politicians’ inexorable pursuit of taxpayers’ wallets, the ferocity of which matches the dedication and intensity of a bear going after honey.

This December, after the election, lawmakers will reconvene to kick off the next two-year legislative session. During the just completed session, with great effort, taxpayer advocates were able to blunt a number of major efforts to modify or undermine Proposition 13, and, as surely as Angelina and Brad will be appearing on the covers of the supermarket tabloids, these attacks on taxpayers will begin anew when the Legislature is back in session.

Bills will be introduced to make it easier to raise taxes on property owners as well as to cut the Proposition 13 protections for commercial property, including small businesses. There may even be an effort to place a surcharge on all categories of property, an idea that was put forward by authors of an initiative that nearly collected enough signatures for placement on this year’s November ballot.

Accompanying the legislative fusillade will come the usual arguments that local government, or schools, or infrastructure, or the homeless, or the elderly, or (fill in the blank with the program or cause of your choice), or all of the preceding, need more money.

Government at all levels has become a militant special interest and its Prime Directive is to increase revenue – to take in more taxpayer dollars that is – and more is never enough.

California appears to have become a state constantly looking for new mechanisms of generating more revenue from its taxpayers in order to fund what is already the countries most compensated  public employees.

California appears to have become a state constantly looking for new mechanisms of generating more revenue from its taxpayers in order to fund what is already the countries most compensated public employees. If the Legislature ever successfully removes the protections associated with Proposition 13, Proposition 218, and the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, the fiscal burden upon CA taxpayers could be enormous.

 

The dirty little secret behind why government has changed from a service entity, dedicated to meeting the needs of its constituents, to a rapacious overlord, is that since being granted virtually unfettered collective bargaining rights in 1977, California’s state and local government workers have become the highest compensated public employees in all 50 states. With the high pay comes high union dues, collected by the employing entity and turned over to the government employee union leadership. These millions of dollars can then be used as a massive war chest to elect a pro-union majority in the Legislature and on the governing bodies of most local governments. And since these elected officials’ political futures are dependent on the goodwill of their union sponsors, there are almost no limits on what they will be willing to do to extract more money from taxpayers to be shoveled into ever increasing pay, benefits and pensions for government workers. (Government employee pension debt is several hundred billion dollars).

Literally, the only protections that average folks have from a total mugging by state and local governments are Proposition 13 and Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act. These popular propositions put limits on how much can be extracted from taxpayers by capping annual increases in property taxes, requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise state taxes and guaranteeing the right of voters to have the final say on local tax increases.

It is easy to see why these taxpayer protections are despised by the grasping political class and their government employee union allies. This is also why taxpayers will have to work hard to preserve them.

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

Average Costa Mesa Firefighter Makes Nearly $250,000 Per Year. Why? Pensions.

Does that fact have your attention? Because media consultants insist we preface anything of substance with a hook like this. It even has the virtue of being true! And now, for those with the stomach for it, let’s descend into the weeds.

According to payroll and benefit data reported by the City of Costa Mesa to the California State Controller, during 2015 the average full-time firefighter made $240,886. During the same period, the average full-time police officer in Costa Mesa made $201,330. In both cases, that includes the cost, on average, for their regular pay, overtime, “other pay,” the city’s payment to CalPERS for the city’s share, the city’s payment to CalPERS of a portion of the employee’s share, and the city’s payments for the employee’s health and dental insurance benefits.

And if you think that’s a lot, just wait. Because the payments CalPERS is demanding from Costa Mesa – and presumably every other agency that participates in their pension system – are about to go way up.

We have obtained two innocuous documents recently delivered to the City of Costa Mesa from CalPERS. They are entitled “SAFETY FIRE PLAN OF THE CITY OF COSTA MESA (CalPERS ID: 5937664258), Annual Valuation Report as of June 30, 2015,” (click to download) and a similar document “SAFETY POLICE PLAN OF THE CITY OF COSTA MESA (CalPERS ID 5937664258), Annual Valuation Report as of June 30, 2015,” (click to download). Buried in the bureaucratic jargon are notices of significant increases to how much Costa Mesa is going to have to pay CalPERS each year. In particular, behold the following two tables that appear on page five of each letter:

Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS  –  Costa Mesa Police

20160920-uw-calpers-fire

Projected Employer Contributions to CalPERS  –  Costa Mesa Firefighters

20160920-uw-calpers-fire

In the rarefied air of pension arcana, pension systems can get away with a lot. If you’re a glutton for punishment, read these notices from CalPERS in their entirety and see if, anywhere, they bother to explain the big picture. They don’t. The big picture is this:  For years CalPERS has underestimated how much they are going to pay in pensions and they have overestimated how much their investments will earn, and as a result they are continuously increasing how much cities have to pay them. This notice is just the latest in a predictable cascade of bad news from pension systems to cities and other agencies.

Coming down to earth just a bit, consider the two terms on the above charts, “Normal Cost %” and “UAL $.” It would be proper to wonder why they represent one with a percentage and one with actual dollars, but rather than indulge in futile speculation, here are some definitions. “Normal Cost” is how much the city pays (never mind that the city also pays a portion of the employee shares – we’ll get to that) into the pension system if it is fully funded. The reason pension systems are NOT fully funded is because, again, year after year, CalPERS underestimated how much they would pay out in pensions to retirees and overestimated how much they would earn. Read this disclaimer that appears on page five of the letters: “The table below shows projected employer contributions…assuming CalPERS earns 7.5 percent every fiscal year thereafter, and assuming that all other actuarial assumptions will be realized….”

And when the “Normal Cost” payments aren’t enough, and the system is underfunded, voila, along comes the “UAL $,” that bigger catch-up payment that is necessary to restore financial health to the fund. “UAL” refers to “unfunded actuarial liability,” the present value of all eventual payments to retirees, and “UAL $” refers to the payments necessary to reduce it to a healthy level. Notice that for firefighters this catch-up payment is set to increase from $4.2M in 2017 to $6.8M in 2022, and for police it is set to increase from $5.8M in 2017 to $10.1M in 2022. This is in a small city that in 2015 employed an estimated 125 full-time police officers and 75 full-time firefighters.

As always, it must be emphasized that the point of all this is not to disparage police or firefighters. No reasonable person fails to appreciate the work they do, or the fact that they stand between us and violence, mayhem, catastrophe and chaos. And it is particularly difficult for those of us who are part of the overwhelming majority of citizens who appreciate and respect members of public safety to have to disclose and publicize the facts of their unaffordable pensions.

The following charts, using data downloaded from the CA State Controller, put these costs into perspective:

Average and Median Employee Compensation by Department
Costa Mesa – Full time employees – 2015

20160920-uw-costamesa-ftcomp2015bydept

In the above chart, before sorting by department and calculating averages and medians, we eliminated employees who worked as temps or only worked for part of the year. This provides a more accurate estimate of how much full-time workers really make in Costa Mesa. Bear in mind that most part-time employees still receive pension benefits, as will be shown on a subsequent chart. As it is, during 2015 the average full-time police officer in Costa Mesa was paid total wages of $121,636, about 15% of that in overtime. But they then collected another $79,694 in city paid benefits, including $59,337 paid by the city towards their pension, AND another $11,562 that the city paid towards their pension that the State Controller vaguely describes as “Defined Benefit Paid by Employer.” Total 2015 police pay:  $201,330.

Also on the above chart, one can see that during 2015 the average full-time firefighter in Costa Mesa was paid total wages of $150,227, about 32% of that in overtime. They then collected another $90,659 in city paid benefits, including $72,202 paid by the city toward their pension, and as already noted, another $10,440 that the city paid toward the employee’s share of their pension. Total 2015 firefighter pay: $240,886.

To distill this further, the following chart shows, per full-time employee, just how much pensions cost Costa Mesa in 2015 as a percent of regular pay.

Average Employer Pension Payment as % of Regular Pay
Costa Mesa – Full-time employees – 2015
20160920-uw-costamesa-pension-as-percent-of-reg-pay

As the above chart demonstrates, employer payments for full-time employee pensions during 2015 already consumed a staggering amount of budget. For police, every dollar of regular pay was matched by 80.5 cents of payments by the city to CalPERS. For firefighters, every dollar of regular pay was matched by a staggering 94.4 cents of payments by the city to CalPERS.

The next chart shows the impact this has on the City of Costa Mesa budget. Depicting total payroll amounts by department, it compares the same variables, total employer pension payments as a percent of total regular pay. As can be seen, the percentages are nearly the same, despite this being for the entire workforce including temporary and part-time employees, some who may not have pension benefits (most do), and many who do not receive top tier pension formulas which the overwhelming majority of full-time public safety employees still receive. As can be seen, for every dollar of regular police pay, CalPERS gets 75 cents from the city, and for every dollar of firefighter pay, CalPERS gets 92 cents from the city.

Total Employer Pension Payment as % of Regular Pay
Costa Mesa – All active employees; full, part-time and temp – 2015
20160920-uw-costamesa-empl-pension-pmt-as-percent-of-reg-pay

At this point, the impact of CalPERS stated rate increases can be fully appreciated. And because this article, already at nearly 1,000 words, has violated every rule of 21st century social media engagement protocols – keep it short, shallow, simple, and sensational – perhaps the next paragraph should be entirely written in bold so it is less likely to be lost in the haze of verbosity. Perhaps a meme is in here somewhere. Perhaps an inflammatory graphic that shall animate the populace. Meanwhile, here goes:

Once CalPERS’s announced increases to the “unfunded payment” are fully implemented, instead of paying $10.9M per year for police pensions, Costa Mesa will pay $15.2M per year, i.e., for every dollar in regular police pay, they will pay $1.04 toward police pensions. Similarly, instead of paying CalPERS $6.4M per year for firefighter pensions, Costa Mesa will pay $9.1M per year, i.e., for every dollar in regular firefighter pay, they will pay $1.30 towards firefighter pensions.

Wow.

So just how much do Costa Mesa’s retired police and firefighters collect in pensions? Repeatedly characterized by government union officials as “modest,” shall we report and you decide? The following table, using data originally sourced from CalPERS and downloaded from Transparent California, are the pensions earned by Costa Mesa retirees in 2015. Excluded from this list in order to present a more representative profile are all pre-2000 retirees, since retirement pensions were greatly enhanced after the turn of the century, and it is those more recent pensions, not the earlier ones, that are causing the financial havoc. Also excluded because the benefit amounts are not representative and the retirement years are not disclosed, are all “beneficiary” pensions, which survivors receive.

Average Pensions by Years of Service
Costa Mesa retirees – 2015

20160920-uw-costamesa-pensions

While these averages are impressive – work 30 years and you get a six-figure pension – they grossly understate what Costa Mesa public safety retirees actually get. There are at least four reasons for this: (1) The data provided doesn’t screen for part-time workers. Many retirees may have put in decades of service with the city, but only worked, for example, 20-hour weeks. They would still accrue a pension, but it would not be nearly as much as it would be if they’d worked full time. (2) Nearly all full-time employees are also granted “other post-employment benefits,” primarily health insurance. It is reasonable to assume that for public safety retirees, the value of these other post employment benefits is at least $10,000 per year. (3) Because CalPERS did not disclose what department retirees worked in during their active careers, this data set is for all of Costa Mesa’s retirees. That means it includes miscellaneous employees who receive pensions that are, while very generous, are not nearly as good as the pensions that public safety retirees receive. (4) While recent reforms have begun to curb this practice, it has been common at least through 2014 for retirees to purchase “air time,” wherein for a ridiculously low sum they are permitted to claim more years of service than they actually worked. It is common for retirees, for example, to purchase five years of air time, so when their pension benefit is initially calculated, instead of multiplying, for example, 20 years of service times a 3.0% multiplier times their final salary, they are permitted to claim 25 years of service.

All of this, of course, is dense gobbledygook to the average millennial Facebook denizen, or, for that matter, to the average politician. To be fair, it’s hard even for the financial professionals hired by the public employee unions to acknowledge that maybe 7.5% (or even 6.5%) annual investment returns will not continue for funds as big as CalPERS, or that history is no indicator of future performance. And even if they know this, they’re under tremendous pressure to keep silent. So the normal contribution remains too low, and the catch-up payments mushroom.

Finally, to be eminently fair, we must acknowledge that since modest bungalows on lots so small you have to choose between a swing set or a trampoline for the kids are now going for about a million bucks each in most of Orange County, making a quarter million per year ain’t what it used to be. But there’s the rub. Because until the people who work for the government are subject to the same economic challenges as the citizens they serve, it is very unlikely we’ll see any pressure to lower the cost of living. Everything – land, energy, transportation, water, materials, etc. – costs far more than it should, thanks to deliberate political policies and financial mismanagement that creates artificial scarcity. But hey – artificial scarcity inflates asset bubbles, which helps keep those pension funds marginally solvent.

Cost-of-living reform, if such a thing can be characterized, must accompany pension reform. What virulent meme might encapsulate all of this complexity?

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

If Police Unions Were Abolished and Police Associations Were Restored

Earlier this month the New York Times ran an editorial entitled “When Police Unions Impede Justice.” They make the point that collective bargaining agreements for police employees often make it very difficult to hold police officers accountable for misconduct. When you have nearly 1.0 million sworn police officers in the United States, you’re bound to have a few bad apples. According to the NYT, these collective bargaining agreements discourage citizens from lodging misconduct complaints, micromanage investigations, and minimize disciplinary sanctions.

This isn’t news. It’s one of the reasons collective bargaining agreements for police officers are especially problematic. The other big problem with collective bargaining agreements for members of public safety are the often excessive and unaffordable benefit packages they’ve “negotiated” with the politicians whose careers are made or broken by these same unions. So what if police unions were abolished?

One may argue that abolishing police unions in favor of police associations – which could not engage in collective bargaining – would actually benefit all parties. An immediate benefit would be greater accountability for police officers. Why wouldn’t greater individual accountability be supported by the overwhelming majority of police officers who are conscientious, humane, compassionate members of the communities they serve? In turn, why wouldn’t greater police accountability foster rapprochement in neighborhoods where mistrust has developed between citizens and law enforcement?

With respect to pay and benefits for police officers, the risks of abolishing collective bargaining may be overstated. As it is, rates of base pay for police officers are not excessive by market standards. If they were, it would be easier to hire police officers. The primary economic problem with police compensation is retirement benefits, which in California now easily average over $100,000 per year for officers retiring in their 50’s after 25+ years of service. As the unions defend these excessive pensions, younger officers are left with far less generous benefits. The perpetually escalating contributions the pension funds demand – for all public employees – are behind virtually all tax increases being proposed in California. It can’t go on.

So abolishing collective bargaining for police would lead to several benefits (1) more police accountability and improved community relations, (2) minimal impact on base police pay, and (3) quicker resolution of financial challenges facing pensions, which will increase the probability that the defined benefit will be preserved, and will increase the potential retirement benefit available to the incoming generation of new police officers.

Apart from ending collective bargaining agreements, abolishing police unions in no way abolishes the ability of police officers to organize in voluntary associations to pursue common professional and political objectives. Before we had unionized police forces, police associations were very influential in civic affairs and could be again. And there are broader political objectives that may animate these police associations, beyond protecting bad cops and fighting for financially unsustainable retirement benefits. Police and other public safety employees, whether they are part of a union or part of a voluntary association, should think carefully about where the United States is headed. This is especially true in California.

The most dangerous risk of politically active police unions is the fact that whenever government fails, whenever our common culture is undermined, whenever social programs breed more problems than they solve, we need to hire more police officers. And whenever government expands to regulate and manage more aspects of our lives, we need to hire more police officers. Social upheaval and authoritarian government create jobs for police officers. For a police union that wants more members, a failing society and an authoritarian government suits their agenda.

For this reason, police officers have a choice to make. Do they really want to enforce the laws emanating from the climate extremists, the tolerance extremists, the sensitivity extremists, the equality extremists, the multi-cultural extremists – the entire ostensibly anti-extremist extremist gang of elitists who currently control public policy in California? Do they want to deploy drones to monitor whether or not someone got a permit to install a window in their bathroom, or watered their lawn on the wrong day? Do they want to fine or arrest people who aren’t willing to adhere to speech codes, or who refuse to hire less qualified employees in order to fulfill race and gender quotas? Do they want to police a society that has fragmented irretrievably because we continued to import millions of unskilled, destitute individuals from hostile cultures, than indoctrinated their children in union-ran public schools to falsely believe they live in a racist, sexist society?

It’s a tough choice. Will politically active police organizations redirect some of their resources to support policies that might actually reduce the number of police we need? Abolishing collective bargaining may make the right choice easier, because police will then be less immune to the economic and social havoc the elitists are currently imposing on the rest of us.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

RELATED POSTS

Appreciating Police Officers, Challenging Police Unions, July 26, 2016

Public Safety Unions and the Financial Apocalypse, May 17, 2016

The Challenges Facing Conservatives Who Support Public Safety, March 22, 2016

In Search of a Legitimate Labor Movement, January 19, 2016

Pension Reform Requires Empathy, not Enmity, October 20, 2015

Public Sector Union Reform Requires Mutual Empathy, June 16, 2015

Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?, June 23, 2015

Pension Reformers are not “The Enemy” of Public Safety, April 20, 2015

Conservatives, Police Unions, and the Future of Law Enforcement, January 6, 2015

Police Unions in America, December 9, 2014

Conservative Politicians and Public Safety Unions, May 13, 2014

How Much Does Professionalism Cost?, March 11, 2014

California Business Community Should Not Enable High Cost Government

The business community is in a very tough position in California.  The California Legislature is completely controlled by the Democratic Party and its pro-labor base.

The California Republican Party and Republicans candidates are their most natural allies but Republicans are only viable in a relatively small minority of legislative races.

The result is that the California business community must build alliances with the pro-labor Democrats and foster good relationships with the Democratic leadership and their power base—the state’s public employee unions.

The rise of the so-called “moderate Democrat” is perhaps the best manifestation, which is essentially a Democrat that tends to vote pro-business on some select issues, and pro-labor on many other issues, particularly those that relate to public employee compensation.   

But the real danger here is that the California Business Community finds itself in the precarious position of actually enabling “high cost government,” characterized by higher taxes and a deteriorating business climate.

Big business will almost always oppose a tax increase that impacts them directly, but they tend to stay neutral or even support tax increases on other taxpayer classes such as small businesses and individuals.

Prop. 30 from 2012 is a perfect example.  The measure temporarily increased income taxes on individuals and businesses earning over $250,000 per year, and also included a ¼ sales tax hike with the $6-8 billion in annual revenues going to education.

The business community did not like it but they tolerated it because the state was in a difficult financial position, and the tax was supposed to be temporary.  Certain segments of the business community, particularly small business, still strongly opposed Prop. 30 (and oppose Prop. 55 as well) because their members are directly impacted and less able to shoulder the brunt of the tax increase.

Prop. 55 on the November 2016 ballot seeks to extend the Prop. 30 tax increases for another 12 years, and is projected to raise nearly double the revenue, $8-11 billion annually.

Prop. 55 on the November 2016 ballot seeks to extend the “temporary” Prop. 30 tax increases for another 12 years

Big business in California has not mobilized a campaign to defeat Prop. 55 despite the fact that it represents a “broken promise” and is essentially a permanent tax increase.

The California Chamber of Commerce and Cal-Tax have voted to oppose the measure, but have not committed significant resources because Prop. 55 primarily impacts small business and individual taxpayers.

The California Business Roundtable continues to be neutral but is scheduled to reconsider its position in mid-September.  Many local chambers of commerce have also stayed off Prop. 55 because they have a large number of representatives of the education community on their boards.

Another consideration is that the business community may not see a path to victory, short of spending in excess of $10 million or more, and they still may not win.  Prop. 55 is supposedly polling above 60%, but still likely vulnerable if a major opposition campaign is mounted given that Prop. 30 only passed with a 55% Yes vote.

I believe that it is in the California business community’s interest to strongly oppose any major tax increase because proponents of higher taxation in California will keep coming back for more, albeit with a bigger war chest and more determination.

The reality is that the cost California government is growing at an unsustainable pace due to the inability of the California Democrat Legislature, as well as most locally elected officials, to adequately control public employee benefit costs, particularly pension and health care.

For example, state and local debt is already at all-time highs despite record revenues, with total debt for public employee compensation costs estimated to be in excess of $1.3 trillion as of 2013, and likely is closer to $2 trillion in 2016.  Calpers debt has increased by more than 50% since 2014, jumping to an estimated $150 billion in 2016 due to heavy investment losses and things are not projected to get any better.

Something is very wrong here—the state has amassed record revenues, but public spending and debt is still climbing at unsustainable rates of 10-25% per year.   And next to nothing is being reinvested in California in the form of roads and improved infrastructure.

These facts may not be altogether clear to anyone who has not studied the fiscal condition of state and local governments in California, and who has intimate knowledge of the state’s public employee unions.

I would encourage the California business community to become more serious about controlling the cost of government because even if the immediate tax increase at hand (Prop. 55 and others) does not directly impact your members this time around, next time it will, particularly once the more favorable revenue options are exhausted.

Over the long-term, California’s approach to taxation has been to max out every tax revenue source available to it, and that’s why we have the highest income taxes (13.3%), the highest sales taxes (9.5%), the highest gas taxes, and the list goes on and on.

The most important fact to recognize is that there will literally be no end to the amount of tax increases, and their negative economic impacts, that the public employee unions and hospitals interest will “need” to fund public sector costs that are rising far in excess of the ability of taxpayers and the state’s economy to pay for them.

To stem this trend, a strong public case will need to be presented to voters about the accelerated decline of the business climate in California, and its consequences for the state’s future.

The only alternative to fighting an ever increasing state tax burden is to continue to raise taxes higher and higher on a shrinking economic base, something the Democrats appear to be completely at peace with, but something that is disastrous for the future of the state’s economy and its residents.

At some point in the not so distant future, the only choice the California business community will have is to flee California for greener pastures as the more than 10,000 businesses have done in recent years.

About the AuthorDavid Kersten is an expert in public policy research and analysis, particularly budget, tax, labor, and fiscal issues. He currently serves as the president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy – a moderate non-partisan policy think tank and public policy consulting organization. The institute specializes in providing knowledge, evidence, and training to public agencies, elected officials, policy advocates, organization, and citizens who desire to enact public policy change.

Court Pension Decision Weakens ‘California Rule’

The one thing some pension reformers say is needed to cut the cost of unaffordable public pensions: give current workers a less costly retirement benefit for work done in the future, while protecting pension amounts already earned.

It’s allowed in the remaining private-sector pensions. But California is one of about a dozen states that have what has become known as the “California rule,” which is based on a series of state court decisions, a key one in 1955.

The pension offered at hire becomes a “vested right,” protected by contract law, that cannot be cut, unless offset by a new benefit of comparable value. The pension can be increased, however, even retroactively for past work as happened for state workers under landmark legislation, SB 400 in 1999. 

Last week, an appeals court issued a ruling in a Marin County case that is a “game changer” if upheld by the state Supreme Court, said a news release from former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who wants to put a pension reform initiative on the 2018 ballot.

Mayor Chuck Reed considered it a “game-changer” when a Marin County Court rejected the rigid interpretation of the California Rule of vested rights, ruling that although an employee has a vested right to a pension, their only right is to a ‘reasonable pension,’ one without benefit spiking

 

Justice James Richman of the First District Court of Appeal wrote that “while a public employee does have a ‘vested right’ to a pension, that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension — not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension.

“And the Legislature may, prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pension. So long as the Legislature’s modifications do not deprive the employee of a ‘reasonable’ pension, there is no constitutional violation.”

The ruling came in a suit by Marin County employee unions contending their vested rights were violated by a pension reform enacted in 2012 that prevents pension boosts from unused vacation and leave, bonuses, terminal pay and other things.

These “anti-spiking” provisions apply to current workers. The major part of the reform legislation, including lower pension formulas and a cap, only apply to new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013, who have not yet attained vested rights.

The California Public Employees Retirement System expects the reform pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Brown to save $29 billion to $38 billion over 30 years, not a major impact on a current CalPERS shortfall or “unfunded liability” of $139 billion.

Similarly, legislation two years ago will increase the rate paid to school districts to the California State Teachers Retirement System from 8.25 percent of pay to 19.1 percent, while the rate paid by teachers increases from 8 percent of pay to 10.25 percent.

The limited teacher rate increase followed the California rule. The new benefit offsetting the 2.5 percent rate hike vests a routine annual 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment, which previously could have been suspended, though that rarely if ever happened.

While mayor of San Jose four years ago, Reed got approval from 69 percent of voters for a broad reform to cut retirement costs that were taking 20 percent of the city general fund. A superior court approved a number of the measure’s provisions.

But a plan to cut the cost of pensions current workers earn in the future by giving them an option (contribute up to an additional 16 percent of pay to continue the current pension or switch to a lower pension) was rejected by the court, citing the California rule.

In a settlement of union lawsuits, Reed’s successor locked in some retirement savings but dropped an appeal of the option. Reed, a lawyer, thinks the California rule is ill-founded and likely to be overturned if revisited by the state supreme court.

He has pointed to the work of a legal scholar, Amy Monahan, who argued that by imposing a restrictive rule without finding clear evidence of legislative intent to create a contract, California courts broke with traditional contract analysis and infringed on legislative power.

“California courts have held that even though the state can terminate a worker, lower her salary, or reduce her other benefits, the state cannot decrease the worker’s rate of pension accrual as long as she is employed,” Monahan wrote.

In the ruling last week, Justice Richman describes the setting for the reform legislation: soaring pension debt after the financial crisis in 2008-09 and a Little Hoover Commission report in 2011 urging cuts in pensions current workers earn in the future.

He cites several court rulings in the past that conclude cuts in pensions earned by current workers are allowed to give the pension system the flexibility needed to adjust to changing conditions and preserve “reasonable” pensions in the future.

Some of the court rulings cited allowed changes in retirement ages, reductions of maximum possible pensions, repeals of cost-of-living adjustments, changes in required service years, pensions reduced from two-thirds to one-half of salary, and a reasonable increase in pension contributions.

“Thus,” Richman wrote, “short of actual abolition, a radical reduction of benefits, or a fiscally unjustifiable increase in employee contributions, the guiding principle is still the one identified by Miller in 1977: ‘the governing body may make reasonable modifications and changes before the pension becomes payable and that until that time the employee does not have a right to any fixed or definite benefits but only to a substantial or reasonable pension.’”

Richman’s ruling makes several references to a unanimous state Supreme Court decision in 1977 in Miller v. State of California. He said the foundation of the unions’ constitutional appeal is a “onetime variation” in one word in another ruling.

“To be sustained as reasonable, alterations of employees’ pension rights must bear some material relation to the theory of a pension system and its successful operation, and changes in a pension plan which result in disadvantage to employees should be accompanied by comparable new advantages,” the state Supreme Court said in Allen v. City of Long Beach (1955).

Richman said a 1983 state Supreme Court decision (Allen v. Board of Administration) changed “should” have a comparable new advantage to “must,” citing two other State Supreme Court decisions that said “should” and an appeals court decision that said “must.”

In a decision a month later, he said, the Supreme Court used “should” while referring to a comparable new benefit and has continued to use “should” in all rulings since then.

“It thus appears unlikely that the Supreme Court’s use of ‘must’ in the 1983 Allen decision was intended to herald a fundamental doctrinal shift,” Richman said, citing two rulings that “should” is advisory or a recommendation not compulsory.

The 39-page decision written by Richman and concurred in by Justices J. Anthony Kline and Maria Miller makes other points in its rejection of a rigid view of the California rule and pension vested rights.

“The big question for pension reformers is whether or not the California Supreme Court will agree,” Reed said in a news release from the Retirement Security Initiative. “If it does, the legal door will be open for Californians to begin to take reasonable actions to save pension systems and local governments from fiscal disaster.”

There was no immediate word from the Marin Association of Public Employees and other county employee unions last week about whether the appeals court decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

About the Author: Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He is currently a Publisher for CalPensions.com.

Average "Full Career" CalPERS Retirement Package Worth $70,000 Per Year

“‘What makes the ‘$100,000 Club’ some magic number denoting abuse other than the claims of anti-pension zealots?’ said Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Retirement Security, a coalition of 1.6 million public workers and retirees.”

This quote from a government union spokesperson, and others, were dutifully collected as part of Orange County Register reporter Teri Sforza’s eminently balanced reporting on the latest pension data, in her August 8th article entitled “The ‘100K Club’ – public retirees with pensions over $100,000 – are a growing group.”

In the article, Sforza’s team evaluated data released by Transparent California on 2015 CalPERS pensions, and reported the number of pensioners receiving $100,000 or more per year was 3.5% of total retirees, up from 2.9% in 2013. That truly does seem like a low percentage, but it ignores two key factors, (1) the total retiree pool includes people who only worked a few years and barely vested a pension, and (2) the total retiree pool includes people who worked many decades, sometimes 30 or 40 years or more, but they only worked part-time during their lengthy careers.

So if you restrict your pool of participants to those who worked a full career, and retired within the last 10 years, what percentage of those retirees would belong to the $100,000 club? As it turns out, there are 75,279 CalPERS retirees who worked more than 25 years and less than 35 years, retiring after 2006. And as it turns out, 9,763 of them, or 13%, are receiving pensions in excess of $100,000 per year.

Moreover, CalPERS doesn’t report the value of retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits, which almost certainly exceed $10,000 per year. If you make this reasonable assumption, you now have 14,901 CalPERS retirees, or 19% of our 75,279 pool of full career retirees, receiving a retirement package worth over $100,000 per year. Worth noting – we didn’t have the data necessary to screen the part-timers out of this pool. If we did, the numbers would be higher.

So if you use the appropriate denominator, the “$100 Club” isn’t 3.5% of the pie, it’s 19%, but so what? It’s still not a very big slice. Here’s where the flip-side of “full career pension” comes into play. Most people don’t work 25-35 years in public service. But most of them do vest their pension benefits, which can be vested in as little as five years. What happens when someone quits after five years, and only goes on to collect, say, a $20,000 per year pension? Someone else is hired, they work five years, and they also qualify to eventually collect a $20,000 per year pension. Then someone else, and then someone else – until you have three or four (or more) people who are all going to receive a $20,000 per year pension – for a job that one person could have performed if they’d stayed with the agency for a full career.

This is a critical point to understand. The significance of “full career” pensions is this: The taxpayer will fund pensions at that level of generosity, even if the benefit is split among multiple partial career participants – people who presumably worked elsewhere (where they also saved for retirement) during the majority of their careers. Should you expect a $100,000 per year pension if you only worked for five years? Of course not. But that’s what taxpayers are funding – whether it goes to one person, or to five people who worked a few years each to collectively fill one person’s full-career position in government.

This is why, when you are considering whether or not pensions are fair and affordable, the full career average pension is the only relevant measure. So what is the full career average?

For CalPERS in 2015, participants with between 25 and 34 years of work who retired in the last ten years, on average, received a pension of $60,277.  Add to that the value of their retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits and the average was probably closer to $70,000 per year.

Just for comparison, for Orange County (OCERS) retirees in 2015, participants with between 25 and 34 years of work who retired in the last ten years, on average, received a pension of $73,628.  Add to that the value of their retirement health benefits and other retirement benefits – information which OCERS also refuses to provide – and the average was probably over $80,000 per year. As for the OCERS “$100,000 Club”? Within the pool of full career retirees as described, and accounting for retirement health benefits, 31% of them were members. Nearly one in three.

Public sector spokespersons frequently point out that public employees don’t get Social Security. Actually, about half of them do get Social Security, but never mind that detail. Because the maximum Social Security benefit, which one must wait until they are 68 years old to receive, is a whopping $31,668 per year.

Calling critics of this double standard “anti-pension zealots” is lazy rhetoric. The problem with defined benefits is not that they exist. The problem is that we have set up a system where public employees operate under a set of retirement benefit formulas and incentives that are roughly four times better than what private sector workers can expect. Yet these private sector workers pay the taxes to fund these pensions and bail them out when the investment returns falter.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Teachers Union Hits Taxpayers with ‘Money Club’ Again

The California Teachers Association has just dropped $10 million into its campaign to extend the “temporary” income tax hike voters approved when they passed Proposition 30 in 2012. Proposition 55, which will appear on this November’s ballot, would extend the highest income tax rates in all 50 states for another dozen years.

Four years ago, the muscular union, called by many in Sacramento the “Fourth Branch of Government,” spent over $11 million to convince voters to increase sales and income taxes. The campaign, paid for by government employee unions and led by Gov. Jerry Brown, repeatedly promised voters the higher taxes would last only a few years and then go away.

These ultra-high tax rates are scheduled to end in 2018 and union leaders are panicking. If the tax increase ends, there may be less money to fund increases in member pay and benefits.

Spending big money on politics is not unusual for the deep pocketed CTA which receives its funding from mandatory dues. Those dues, withheld from members’ paychecks whether they like it or not, can total more than $1000 a year for a single teacher. Recall that CTA laid out $58 million in opposing several worthy reform measures in a 2005 special election including one reform that would have capped state spending. Union leaders like a guaranteed cash flow so it should come as no surprise if they put out an additional $10 million, or more, to support the Proposition 55 income tax extension. For backers of Proposition 55, spending millions in return for billions of tax dollars is considered a bargain.

The campaign will, no doubt, target low information voters with messages about how, “it’s for the children.” It is standard operational procedure for tax promoters to use children as human shields when advancing a tax increase tied to education. Not to be mentioned is that the union’s interest is solely in increasing pay and benefits, including generous pensions, for members who are already paid more than $20,000 above the national average. And don’t forget that a national education union leader once famously said “when school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”

The California Teachers Association has spent $10 million dollars into extending the Prop. 30 “temporary tax”

 

Some will argue that ultra-high taxes should be maintained because public employees deserve to be well paid. They are. According the Department of Labor, California is the state with the best paid state and local government employees.

Our state is running a multi-billion-dollar surplus, yet Proposition 55 backers want to continue the ultra-high taxes that are already pushing businesses, and the jobs they provide, to relocate out of state. And it’s not just businesses. The list of high wealth individuals including professional athletes and entertainers who have bailed out of California is a mile long.

But the deleterious impact of high taxes is wholly lost on the union bosses. Their attention is, no doubt, on the latest news from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The second-largest U.S. public pension fund earned a paltry 1.4 percent return on investments in the fiscal year just ended, missing its target of 7.5 percent for the second straight year.  This raises questions about the fund’s management and whether or not it will be able to meet its obligation to 896,000 current and retired teachers.

Of course, taxpayers remain the guarantor of all public employee pensions so, in all fairness, the Proposition 55 income tax extension could come to be called the “pension tax.” And the teachers union is prepared to use its massive “money club” on voters to make sure Proposition 55 passes and the taxpayers’ dollars are there.

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