California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, delivered an inaugural address earlier this week that accurately reflected the mentality of his supporters. Triumphalist, defiant, and filled with grand plans. But are these plans grand, or grandiose? Will Governor Newsom try to deliver everything he promised during his campaign, and if so, can California’s state government really deliver to 40 million residents universal preschool, free community college, and single payer health care for everyone? It’s reasonable to assume that to execute all of these projects would cost hundreds – plural – of billions per year. Where will this money come from?
While California’s budget outlook currently offers a surplus in excess of $10 billion, that is an order of magnitude less than what it will cost to do what Newsom is planning. And this surplus, while genuine, is the result of an extraordinary, unsustainable surge in income tax payments by wealthy people. California’s tax revenues are highly dependent on collections from the top one-percent of earners, and over the past few years, the top one-percent has been doing very, very well. Can this go on?
To illustrate just how unusually swollen California’s current state tax revenues have gotten, compare state tax collections in FYE 6/30/2017 (our most recent available data) to seven years earlier, in 2010. Back in 2010, California was in the grip of the great recession. Total state tax revenue was $94 billion, and $44 billion of that was from personal income taxes. Skip to FYE 6/30/2017, and total state tax revenue was $148 billion, and $86 billion was from personal income taxes. This means that 80 percent of the increase in state tax revenue over the seven years through 6/30/2017 was represented by the increase is collections from individual taxpayers, which doubled.
It isn’t hard to figure out why this happened. Between 2010 and 2017 the tech heavy NASDAQ tripled in value, from 2,092 to 6,153. In that same period, Silicon Valley’s big three tech stocks all quadrupled. Adjusting for splits, Apple shares went from $35 to $144, Facebook opened in May 2012 at $38, and went up to $150, Google moved from $216 to $908.
While California’s tech industry was booming over the past decade, California real estate boomed in parallel. In June 2010 the median home price in California was $335,000; by June 2017 it had jumped to $502,000. Along the California coast, median home prices have gone much higher. Santa Clara County now has a median home price of $1.3 million, double what it was less than a decade ago.
As people sell their overpriced homes to move inland or out-of-state, and as tech workers cash out their burgeoning stock options, hundreds of billions of capital gains generate tens of billions in state tax revenue. But can homes continue to double in value every six or seven years? Can tech stocks continue to quadruple in value every six or seven years? Apparently Gavin Newsom thinks they can. Reality may beg to differ.
Just a Slowdown in Capital Gains Will Cause Tax Revenue to Crash
The problem with Gavin Newsom’s grand plans is that it won’t take a downturn in asset values to sink them. All that has to happen to throw California’s state budget into the red is for these asset values to stop going up. Just a plateauing of their value – which, by the way, we’ve been witnessing over the past six months – will wreak havoc on state and local government budgets in California.
The reasons for this are clear enough. Wealthy people, making a lot of money, pay the lion’s share of state income taxes, and state income taxes constitute the lion’s share of state revenues. Returning to the 2017 fiscal year, of the $86 billion collected in state income taxes, $28 billion was from only 70,437 filers, all of them making over $1.0 million in that year. Another $7.3 billion came from 131,120 filers who made between a half-million and one million in that year. And since making over $200,000 in income in one year is still considered doing very, very well, it’s noteworthy that another 807,000 of those filers ponied up another $15.1 billion in FYE 6/30/2017.
There is an obvious conclusion here: if people are no longer making killings in capital gains on their sales of stock and real estate, California’s tax revenues will instantly decline by $20 billion, if not much more. And it won’t even take a slump in asset prices to cause this, just a leveling off.
Debt, Unfunded Pension Liabilities, Neglected Infrastructure
When considering how weakening tax revenues in California will impact the ability of the state and local governments to cope with existing debt, it’s hard to know where to begin. To get an idea of the scope of this problem, the California Policy Center just released an analysis of California’s total state and local government debt. As shown on the table, California’s total state and local government debt as of 6/30/2017 is over $1.5 trillion. More than half of it, $846 billion, is in the form of unfunded pension liabilities.
Calculating pension liabilities is a complex process, with controversy surrounding what assumptions are valid. In basic terms, a pension liability is the amount of money that must be on hand today, in order for withdrawals on that amount – plus investment earnings on that amount as it declines – to eventually pay all future pensions earned to-date for all active and retired participants in the fund. Put another way, a pension liability is the present value of all pension benefits – earned so far – that must be paid out in the future. The amount by which the total pension liability exceeds the actual amount of assets invested in a fund is referred to as the unfunded liability.
The controversy over what is an accurate estimate of a pension liability arises due to the extreme sensitivity that number has to how much the fund managers think they can earn. Using the official projection which is typically around 7.0 percent per year, the official pension liability for all of California’s government pension funds is “only” $316 billion. But Moody’s, the credit rating agency, discounts pension liabilities with the Citigroup Pension Liability Index (CPLI), which is based on high grade corporate bond yields. In June 2017, it was 3.87 percent, and using that rate, CPC analysts estimated the unfunded liability for California’s state and local employee pension systems at $846 billion. Using the methodology offered by the prestigious Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, California’s unfunded pension debt is even higher, at $1.26 trillion.
Where pension liabilities move from controversial theories to decidedly non-academic real world consequences, however, is in the budget busting realm of how much California’s government agencies have to pay these funds each year. California’s public sector employers contributed an estimated $31 billion to the pension systems in 2018. Extrapolating from officially announced pension rate hikes from CalPERS, California’s largest pension system, by 2024 those payments are projected to increase to $59 billion. And these aggressive increases the pension systems are requiring are a reflection more of their crackdown on the terms of the “catch up” payments employers must make to reduce the unfunded liability than on a reduction to their expected real rate of return.
Huge unfunded pension liabilities are another reason, equally significant, as to why California’s state budget is extraordinarily vulnerable to economic downturns. If assets stop appreciating, not only will income tax revenue plummet. At the same time, expenses will go up, because pension funds will demand far higher annual contributions to make up the shortfall in investment earnings.
A cautionary overview of the economic challenges facing California’s state government would not be complete without mentioning the neglected infrastructure in the state. For decades, this vast state, with nearly 40 million residents, has been falling behind in infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers assigns poor grades to California’s infrastructure. They rate over 1,300 bridges in California as “structurally deficient,” and 678 of California’s dams are “high hazard.” They estimate $44 billion needs to be spent to bring drinking water infrastructure up to modern standards, and $26 billion on wastewater infrastructure. They estimate over 50 percent of California’s roads are in “poor condition.” In every category – aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, wastewater, hazardous waste, the energy grid, inland waterways, levees, ports, public parks, roads, rail, transit, and schools, California is behind. The fix? Literally hundreds of additional billions.
What Governor Newsom might consider is refocusing California’s state budget priorities on areas where the state already faces daunting financial challenges, rather than acquiescing to the utopian fever dreams of his constituency and his colleagues.
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Every two years, around this time, political mailers inundate the mailboxes of California’s registered voters. This week, many Sacramento residents received “Vote No on Prop 6″ mailer. Prop 6 is that pesky, subversive citizens ballot initiative that, if approved by voters, will roll back the gas tax.
But Prop. 6 isn’t the topic here. Rather, the topic is all taxes in California. Why is there relentless pressure to increase them? And what special interests are paying for these campaigns to increase (or preserve) taxes across California?
In that context, this No on Prop. 6 mailer is instructive. Because blazoned across the cover of this four page, 8.5″ x 11” glossy full color flyer, is Darrell Roberts, representing the California Professional Firefighters. Roberts is the president of IAFF Local 2180, the Chula Vista Firefighters Union. In addition to his duties as president of Local IAFF Local 2180, Roberts is a Fire Battalion Chief for the Chula Vista Fire Department. In that capacity, he earned $327,491 in 2017, including $99,887 of overtime.
Now let’s back up for just a moment and make something perfectly clear. This isn’t about disrespecting firefighters in general, or Mr. Roberts in particular. Quite the contrary. Firefighters perform dangerous, challenging jobs that require years of intense training. Every year in California, a few of them die in the line of duty. In some years, more than a few. Furthermore, firefighters constantly witness trauma, often horrific, every time they respond not only to fires, but medical emergencies and automobile accidents. Their jobs are tough.
For these reasons, critics of public sector compensation trends should always temper their observations with respect. It is far too easy to observe, accurately, that many other jobs carry higher risk of injury or death, while forgetting that first responders stand between citizens and mayhem not just in normal times, but also in extraordinary times. In a truly cataclysmic event, and 911 is a perfect example, firefighters are obligated to occupy the front lines. They are the ones who must stop whatever destructive storms afflict our society. They are the ones who must go in before safety is restored, and rescue the stranded victims.
With that necessary preamble, and without diminishing it in any way, a difficult conversation remains necessary regarding public sector compensation, and the political power of the public sector unions who push for continuous increases in compensation.
A California Policy Center analysis published nearly two years ago, using 2015 data, calculated the average pay and benefits for a California firefighter at $196,370 for those employed by cites, $198,959 for those working for counties, and $145,938 for those working for the state. Those averages have not fallen in the past three years, and they do not include the additional cost per firefighter, if and when their retirement pensions are adequately funded.
Mr. Robert’s own City of Chula Vista provides an example of these rising pension costs. In 2017 the average pay for a Chula Vista firefighter was $189,715. That included, on average, $41,112 for overtime and $31,381 for employer contributions to their defined benefit pensions. But as they say, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Using CalPERS own projections for the City of Chula Vista, the average normal contribution by the city to fund police and firefighter pensions is expected to grow from 20 percent of payroll in FYE 6/30/2017 to 22 percent of payroll by FYE 6/30/2025. Nothing terribly dramatic there. But, get this, the so-called unfunded contribution – that additional amount necessary to pay down the city’s unfunded liability for police and firefighter pensions – is expected to grow from 13 percent of payroll in FYE 6/30/2017 to 32 percent of payroll in 6/30/2025.
Put another way, the City of Chula Vista’s employer payments for public safety pensions are going to go from 33 percent of payroll to 53 percent of payroll by 2025. And if the stock market decides to end its already record breaking bull run, harming the CalPERS investment portfolio, these payments will go much higher.
It’s also important to recognize the relationship between excess overtime expenses and the cost of pension and health benefits (including retirement health benefits). When public employers pay more than 50 percent above regular salary to fund pensions and benefits, and in the case of public safety, they do, then it makes financial sense to pay time-and-a-half to existing staff, since that will cost less. Lost in that equation is the stress this excessive overtime inflicts on overworked personnel, as well as the lost opportunity to bring benefit overhead back below fifty percent.
Collectively California’s state and local employers, based on projections already released from CalPERS, are going to have to increase their total contributions to public employee pension funds from approximately $31 billion in 2017 to an estimated $59 billion by 2025.
Maybe veteran firefighters truly believe they are entitled to annual pay and benefits packages in excess of $200,000 per year, or in Mr. Roberts case, in excess of $300,000 per year. But with all the political power these unions wield, they ought to be thinking of ways to help lower the cost-of-living in California. That would help everyone.
And perhaps it may disturb even the most respectful and appreciative among us, when a public servant who made $327,491 last year, asks us to support higher taxes.
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2017 Salaries for Chula Vista – Transparent California
California’s Public Sector Compensation Trends – California Policy Center, January 2017
Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, FYE 6/30/2017 – City of Chula Vista
Safety Plan of the City of Chula Vista, Annual Valuation Report as of 6/30/2017 – CalPERS
Miscellaneous Plan of the City of Chula Vista, Annual Valuation Report as of 6/30/2017 – CalPERS
2017 City Data, Government Compensation in California – California State Controller
California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – California Policy Center, January 2018
When evaluating the financial challenges facing California’s state and local public employee pension funds, a compelling question to consider is when, exactly when, will these funds financially collapse? That is, of course, an impossible question to answer. CalPERS, for example, manages hundreds of billions in assets, which means that long before it literally runs out of cash to pay benefits, tough adjustments will be made that will restore it to financial health.
What is alarming in the case of CalPERS and other public sector pension funds, however, is the relentless and steep rate increases they’re demanding from their participating employers. Equally alarming is the legal and political power CalPERS wields to force payment of these rate increases even after municipal bankruptcies where other long-term debt obligations are diminished if not completely washed away. Until California’s local governments have the legal means to reform pension benefits, rising pension contributions represent an immutable, potentially unmanageable financial burden on them.
SOUTH PASADENA’S PAYMENTS TO CALPERS ARE SET TO DOUBLE BY 2025
The City of South Pasadena offers a typical case study on the impact growing pension costs have on public services and local taxes. Using CalPERS own records and official projections, the City of South Pasadena paid $2.8 million to CalPERS in their fiscal year ended 6/30/2017. That was equal to 25% of the base salary payments made in that year. By 2020, the City of Pasadena is projected to pay $4.3 million to CalPERS, equal to 35% of base pay. And by 2025, the City of Pasadena is projected to pay $5.9 million to CalPERS, equal to 41% of base pay.
Can the City of South Pasadena afford to pay an additional three $3.0 million per year to CalPERS, on top of the nearly $3.0 million per year they’re already paying? They probably can, but at the expense of either higher local taxes or reduced public services, or a combination of both. But the story doesn’t end there. The primary reason required payments to CalPERS are doubling over the next few years is because CalPERS was wrong in their estimates of how much their pension fund could earn. They could still be wrong.
Annual pension contributions are calculated based on two factors: (1) How much future pension benefits were earned in the current year, and how much money must be set aside in this same year to earn interest and eventually be used to pay those benefits in the future? This is called the “normal contribution.” (2) What is the present value of ALL outstanding future pension payments, earned in all prior years by all participants in the plan, active and retired, and by how much does that value, that liability, exceed the amount of money currently invested in the pension fund? That amount is the unfunded pension liability, and the amount set aside each year to eventually reduce that unfunded liability to zero is called the “unfunded contribution.”
Both of these annual pension contributions depend on a key assumption: What rate-of-return can the pension fund earn each year, on average, over the next several decades? And it turns out the amount that has to be paid each year to keep a pension fund fully funded is extremely sensitive to this assumption. The reason, for example, that CalPERS is doubling the amount their participating employers have to pay each year is largely because they are gradually lowering their assumed rate of return from 7.5% per year to 7.0% per year. But what if that isn’t enough?
IF THE RATE-OF-RETURN CALPERS EARNS FALLS, PAYMENTS COULD RISE MUCH HIGHER
It isn’t unreasonable to worry that going forward, the average rate of return CalPERS earns on their investments could fall below 7.0% per year. For about a decade, nearly every asset class available to investors has enjoyed rates of appreciation in excess of historical averages. Yet despite being at what may be the late stages of a prolonged bull market in equities, bonds, and real estate, the City of South Pasadena’s pension investments managed by CalPERS were only 73% funded. As of 6/30/2017 (the most recent data CalPERS currently offers by agency), the City of South Pasadena faced an unfunded pension liability of $35 million. Using CalPERS own numbers, if they were to earn 6% per year on their investments in the coming years, instead of their new – and just lowered – annual return of 7%, that unfunded liability would rise to $58 million.
As it is, by 2025 the City of South Pasadena is already going to be making an unfunded contribution that is nearly twice their normal contribution. Another reason for this is because CalPERS is now requiring their participating agencies to pay off their unfunded pension liabilities in 20 years of even payments. Previously, attempting to minimize those payments, agencies had been using 30 year payoff terms with low payments in the early years. Back in 2017, based on a 6% rate-of-return projection, and in order to pay off a $58 million unfunded pension liability on these more aggressive repayment terms, the City of South Pasadena would have to come up with an unfunded pension contribution of $5.0 million per year, along with a normal contribution of around another $2.4 million per year.
But why should it end there? Nobody knows what the future holds. These rate-of-return projections by definition have to be “risk free,” since otherwise – and as has happened – taxpayers have to foot the bill to make these catch up payments. How many of you can rely on a “risk free” rate-of-return,” year after year, for decades, in your 401K accounts of six percent, or even five percent? At a 5% rate-of-return, the City of South Pasadena would have to pay an unfunded contribution of $6.2 million, along with a normal contribution of $2.8 million.
These scenarios are not outlandish. Most everyone hopes America and the world are just entering a wondrous “long boom” of peace and prosperity, ushered in by ongoing global stability and technological innovations. But the momentum of history is not predictable. Imagine if there was an era of deflation. It has happened before and it can happen again. The following chart shows how that might play out in the City of South Pasadena. Notice how at a 4% rate-of-return projection, in 2017 the City of South Pasadena would have had to pay CalPERS $9.8 million; at 3%, $11.4 million.
City of South Pasadena – FYE 6/30/2017
Estimated Pension Payments and Pension Debt at Various Rate-of-Return Projections
And what about the rest of California? How would a downturn affect all of California’s public employee pension systems, the agencies they serve, and the taxpayers who fund them? In a CPC analysis published earlier this year, “How to Assess Impact of a Market Correction on Pension Payments,” the following excerpt provides an estimate:
“If there is a 15% drop in pension fund assets, and the new projected earnings percentage is lowered from 7.0% to 6.0%, the normal contribution will increase by $2.6 billion per year, and the unfunded contribution will increase by $19.9 billion. Total annual pension contributions will increase from the currently estimated $31.0 billion to $68.5 billion.”
That’s a lot of billions. And as already noted, a 15% drop in the value of invested assets and a reduction in the estimated average annual rate-of-return from 7.0% to 6.0% is by no means a worst case scenario.
To-date, meaningful pension reform has been thwarted by powerful special interests, most notably pension funds and public sector unions, but also many financial sector firms who profit from the status quo. But a case to be decided next year by the California Supreme Court, Cal Fire Local 2881 v. CalPERS, may provide local agencies with the legal right to make more sweeping changes to pension benefits. The outcome of that ruling, combined with growing public pressure on local elected officials, may offer relief. For this reason, it may well be that raising taxes and cutting services in order to fund pensions may be a false choice.
CalPERS Annual Valuation Reports – main search page
CalPERS Annual Valuation Report – South Pasadena, Miscellaneous Employees
CalPERS Annual Valuation Report – South Pasadena, Safety Employees
CalPERS Annual Valuation Report – South Pasadena, Miscellaneous Employees (PEPRA)
CalPERS Annual Valuation Report – South Pasadena, Safety Employees, Fire (PEPRA)
CalPERS Annual Valuation Report – South Pasadena, Safety Employees, Police (PEPRA)
Moody’s Cross Sector Rating Methodology – Adjustments to US State and Local Government Reported Pension Data (version in effect 2018)
California Pension Tracker (Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research – California Pension Tracker
The State Controller’s Government Compensation in California – main search page
The State Controller’s Government Compensation in California – South Pasadena payroll
The State Controller’s Government Compensation in California – raw data downloads
California Policy Center – Resources for Pension Reformers (dozens of links)
California Policy Center – Will the California Supreme Court Reform the “California Rule?” (latest update)
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