Public pension data belongs to the public
What goes up must come down.
That’s precisely what happened – in record-setting time – when the California Public Employees Retirement System, the state employees’ pension agency, attempted to provide to the public information about its retirees’ pensions and making it accessible to the public on the CalPERS’ website.
The public has awakened to California’s pension crisis, concerned over questionable practices of “spiking” that appear to game the pension system and enable far too many public sector employees to gouge taxpayers. As a result, the public has demanded greater transparency in understanding the extent of pension obligations in California. There’s nothing wrong with that.
It was for this reason that CalPERS, the nation’s largest pension fund, amid much fanfare, trumpeted the posting of its online pension data bank. Then, the Retired Public Employees Association of California, representing retired and active state employees, vehemently objected and exercised some political clout. CalPERS’ posted data was removed the very next day.
Opposition to making the data public was characterized as a defense of privacy, a right guaranteed by the California Constitution. The RPEA, which lobbies for improved pension and health benefits for its members, also argued that it was seeking to protect senior citizens from becoming victims of Internet predators.
The opposition was more about stifling a growing public outrage over the need for pension reform than the potential abuse of some elderly members.
The removal of the online pension data by CalPERS demonstrates the political obstacles California faces in achieving any meaningful pension reform. It also underscores the growing disconnect between the public’s demand for transparency and state leaders’ efforts to stifle reform on behalf of powerful special interests.
While privacy is vital to every Californian, attempting to obscure our access to information about the scope and depth of pensions is unjustifiable. The public should not settle for an admonishment that we have no right to “follow the money” when it comes to pensions – the singular most significant issue correlated with the rise of municipal bankruptcies. Furthermore, courts have ruled that information about how public money is spent belongs in the public domain, underscoring that the right to privacy is not – nor should be construed to be – in conflict with the public’s right to know.
Public information is essential to a democracy. We’ve already seen multiple efforts in recent months to erode the public’s right to know, including the Legislature’s blatant efforts to gut the state Public Records Act. Only an outcry by open-government groups and media outlets – including the Register – convinced the Legislature to backtrack on their effort to reduce the amount of sunshine in government.
CalPERS has buckled to political pressure by shutting down the pension website. Now is not the time to deny the public the right to know the depth of the pension iceberg, and how it will impact our cities and municipal bond market in the future.
What went down, needs to go back up. Now.
Gloria Romero is an education reformer and former Democratic state senator from Los Angeles. This article originally appeared as a guest column in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.