Funding Pensions for Unionized Government Workers – It's Never Enough
Editor’s Note: Here’s another government pension horror story coming from Chicago. If you think it can’t happen here, think again. California’s political system, state and local, is just as dominated by government unions as Illinois. At least in Illinois, Governor Rauner is using every legal and political weapon he can possibly muster to fight these unions. California Governor Jerry Brown, who knows better, is hoping incremental reforms combined with incessant tax increases will save the pension system. As Jon Coupal points out here, California’s taxpayers have one advantage – Proposition 13. Without the limits Prop. 13 places on property tax increases, California’s urban residents could easily end up facing what Chicago’s residents currently face, or what has already happened in New Jersey, where people living in modest homes pay annual property taxes of $15,000 or more to support – just like in Illinois, pensions for unionized public employees. First Detroit, then Chicago. One sustained market downturn, and Los Angeles will be next.
Chicago, Carl Sandburg’s “City of the big shoulders,” is about to find out just how heavy a tax burden homeowners are able to bear. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has revealed his plan for a massive property tax increase to pay for unfunded pension obligations. And for taxpayers, it isn’t pretty. The mayor wants a $543 million increase in property taxes to cover police and fire pensions, as well as additional taxes and fees to close a projected $745 million budget shortfall.
How much this will cost the average homeowner is not yet clear. Emanuel is seeking approval from the Legislature to exempt those homes worth less than $250,000 from the increase, meaning more valuable properties would absorb the entire burden.
The uncertainty may also be contributing to a decline in home values in recent months, as shown by the Case-Shiller Home Price Index. Buyers may not be so ready to cut a deal that will see them inheriting a massive property tax hike.
In order to illustrate the seriousness of the city’s fiscal crisis, and perhaps to make it easier to extort more from property owners, Emanuel is claiming that without the additional revenue, public safety will be decimated. Twenty percent of the police force and forty percent of firefighters will lose their jobs, he threatens.
Still, two years ago, the mayor foreshadowed the coming tax increase when he warned that in order to pay the mounting bill for government employee pensions — a bill that would triple in 2015 when a balloon payment comes due — property taxes could be forced to go up 150%.
This is a frightening scenario for homeowners, but not so much for homeowners in California. For us, notwithstanding equally daunting pension problems, the good news is Proposition 13. Although city mismanagement is also common to California – a number of cities have been forced to file for bankruptcy in recent years, largely due to exploding government employee pension debt – officials are prohibited by Proposition 13 from soaking property owners to cover up their dereliction. While Chicago homeowners are sitting ducks for higher property taxes, in California, increases are limited to two percent annually.
Add to the property tax limitations that Proposition 13 gives voters the final say on new local taxes and requires a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature to increase state taxes, and it becomes easier to understand why it is a target of so many Sacramento politicians, most of whom owe their election to their government employee union allies. If they can eliminate the impediments to tax increases established by Proposition 13, the politicians will be in a much better position to repay and reward their political benefactors.
Without Proposition 13 Californians could soon experience what it is like to live in Chicago without ever having to leave their homes. And it could be even worse. Chicago’s budget director has already gone on record as saying Mayor Emanuel’s property tax increase is not enough.
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.