Pension Reform is BAD for Wall Street, and GOOD for California

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
April 14, 2015

Pension Reform is BAD for Wall Street, and GOOD for California

“His idea of pension reform is, you sign up for one pension system, we’re going to change it now in mid career, and now you’re going to get something different.”

Lou Paulson, President, California Professional Firefighters (ref. CPF Video,  April 1, 2015)

The biggest problem with Mr. Paulson’s comment is the double standard he applies. Changing pension systems “mid-career” are just fine when they improve the benefit to Mr. Paulson’s unionized government workforce, but when it comes time to roll back these financially unsustainable changes, he cries foul.

The most obvious, indeed egregious example of a “mid-career” change to pension systems that improved pension benefits began during the internet bubble year 1999, when SB 400 was passed by the California State Legislature. SB 400 changed the pension benefit formula for California’s Highway Patrol officers from “2% at 50” to “3% at 50,” a 50% increase to their benefit. But that’s not all…

SB 400 made this increase retroactive to the date of hire for all participants. That is, if you had worked for 30 years for the California Highway Patrol and were going to retire in another year or two, instead of calculating your pension benefit based on 2% times the number of years you worked, 30 years, you would calculate your pension benefit based on 3% times the number of years you worked. Suddenly your pension benefit went from 60% of final salary to 90% of final salary – a 50% increase. Retroactively.

Mr. Paulson, does SB 400 qualify as “you sign up for one pension system, we’re going to change it now in mid career, and now you’re going to get something different?”

Once SB 400 enhanced pension benefits for California’s Highway Patrol officers along with workers in some other state agencies, laws and MOUs governing the rest of California’s state/local workforce followed suit. By 2005, most public safety employee in California were on a “3% at 50” pension. And in virtually all cases, these benefits were enhanced, by 50%, retroactively.

Last week, on April 10, the Reason Foundation hosted what has become an annual conference for citizens and policymakers involved in pension reform. As reported in the Sacramento Bee and elsewhere, the conference was disrupted by protesters, many of them off-duty firefighters, who carried signs saying things like “Reed and DeMaio Plan – Good for Wall Street, Bad for Rest of Us.”



The problem with the notion that pension reform is “good for Wall Street,” of course, is that pension reform is bad for Wall Street. The biggest shareholders in the world are public employee pension funds. This began back in 1984, when the California state legislature placed a citizen’s initiative onto the ballot, Prop. 21, that “deleted constitutional restrictions and limitations on the purchase of corporate stock by public retirement systems.” Scarcely understood and narrowly passed, Prop. 21 turned California’s government pension funds into the biggest gamblers on Wall Street.

Before Prop. 21, just for example, pension funds might have purchased bonds to finance revenue generating projects such as dams, power stations and desalination plants, which yield decent annual returns to investors and greatly benefit ordinary Californians. Now, thanks to Prop. 21, California’s 81 independent state/local government employee pension systems, controlling over $722 billion in assets, invest 90% of it out-of-state, chasing 7.5% returns by gambling on volatile stocks, private equity funds, and even hedge funds. Private financial firms rake in billions every year in commissions and fees, while directly managing tens, if not hundreds of billions on behalf of California’s state/local government employee pension funds.

And when those investment banks and private equity firms and hedge funds make bad bets on behalf of public employee pension systems, the taxpayers bail them out.

In Sacramento Bee columnist Jon Ortiz’s report on the protest outside the April 10th pension reform conference, in what is perhaps the understatement of the century, Manhattan Institute researcher Stephen Eide said “The organizational advantages of the other side are significant.”

You can say that again, Stephen. Firefighters, along with other public employee groups, organized by unions who goad them into thinking they’re the victims of “Wall Street,” and “haters,” pack every city council meeting, every county supervisor meeting, every legislative hearing, and every event they can find where the interests of their unions may be threatened. They stare down council members, county supervisors, and legislators, making sure they know that if their interests aren’t favored, they will destroy them politically. And the taxpayers are paying for every cent of this. No businessperson even slightly dependent on an at least neutral local government is going to cross the government unions, because the government unions run the government.

Take a look at this “call to action” created by the Sacramento Area Firefighters to recruit protesters to show up on April 10th:


As can be seen, the firefighter union contact for this “action” is Bobby Weist, a firefighter for the City of Davis. According to Transparent California, Mr. Weiss made $162,259 last year. As for the rest of the firefighters in Davis, take a look: City of Davis Firefighter Salaries and Benefits. Of the 13 people listed (searching City of Davis employees with “Fire” in the job title), Bobby Weist was the lowest paid. Twelve other firefighters in this small department made more than him. Their salaries and benefits ranged from Weist’s $162,259 to $235,375. Six of them made over $200,000. For those readers who still think employer paid benefits don’t count as compensation, please join around 50 million other Americans and start working as an independent contractor. Every dime you save for retirement has to come out of whatever it is you get paid. Of course it counts.

A firefighter in an affluent California city like Davis works one 24 hour shift every three days. In practical terms however, taking into account paid vacation and holiday benefits, veteran firefighters actually work two 24 hour shifts every week (ref. Davis firefighter MOU), with anything beyond that paid overtime. If a veteran firefighter works 3.3 24 hour shifts per week, they double their regular pay. And the reason cities pay so much overtime? Because they can’t afford to pay the pension benefits for additional firefighters. A doctor working at Kaiser makes $251,000 per year, which is “46% above the national average.” Get that? California’s veteran firefighters, whose total compensation averages over $200,000 per year, make as much as the average medical doctor in the U.S.

Firefighter unions have managed to con many of their members into thinking that any effort to reform pension benefits is unreasonable. They are wrong. If firefighters, and by extension all public servants, really cared about the people they serve, they would (1) repeal Prop. 21, and start pouring pension assets into financing new California infrastructure projects that would benefit all Californians and still yield a solid 5% annual return, and (2) repeal SB 400 and all of its copycat measures, and accept pension benefit formulas as they were up until 1999 – still generous, but at least within the bounds of financial sustainability.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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