Coping With the Pension Albatross

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

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

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

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

And the fun is just beginning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what can be done:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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