By Ed Mendel
February 28, 2011
After the stock market crash punched a big hole in their CalPERS investment funds, a new report says 26 local government agencies reduced pension benefits — but nearly 200 cities, counties and fire and water districts increased pension benefits.
A report issued last week by a bipartisan state watchdog, the Little Hoover Commission, said 13 local governments boosted pensions for police and firefighters to the well-publicized “3 percent at 50” formula said by critics to be unsustainable.
The formula that allows a safety worker to retire at age 50 with 3 percent of final pay for each year served was negotiated more than a decade ago by the Highway Patrol union.
But the formula that became a symbol of excess, the best-known part of a landmark public pension increase, SB 400 in 1999, was rolled back to “3 at 55” for new hires under a Highway Patrol contract last year.
The Hoover report said pensions for non-safety employees in 18 local agencies were boosted to “2.7 percent at 55.” That’s much higher than a state worker formula, “2 at 55,” rolled back to “2 at 60” for new hires after lengthy labor negotiations last fall.
In 22 local contracts, the “final pay” setting pensions became the single highest salary year. Going the other way, recent state worker contracts changed final pay from one to three years, making it difficult to pad or “spike” pensions by manipulating pay.
The report said 55 local government agencies boosted pensions by simply crediting employees for two additional years of service, a farewell “golden handshake” agreement as they enter retirement.
The giant California Public Employees Retirement System covers state workers, non-teaching school employees, and more than 1,500 cities, counties and special districts, which have roughly half of the non-federal government employees in the state.
The Hoover report said the pension increases in hard economic times, revealed in CalPERS reports for the last two fiscal years, call into “question the ability and willingness” of local officials to negotiate reductions in pension costs.
In a letter with the Hoover report, the commission chairman, Daniel Hancock, said local governments need state help “to impose the structural discipline they lack and to provide alternatives that can put the system on a path of sustainability.”
The key part of a pension system overhaul recommended by the commission, after a study begun last April, asks the governor and the Legislature to establish the legal authority for “freezing” the pensions of current workers.
The years employees have already worked would earn pensions under the current formulas. But after the change is made, the pension earned from that point would be under a lower formula.
“State and local governments cannot solve this problem without addressing the mounting pension obligations of current employees,” Hancock said in a news release.
Court decisions based on contract law are generally believed to mean that once a California public employee is “vested” in a pension, the pension earned in the years or decades that follow cannot be cut without providing something of equal value.
As a result, the agreements that lower pension formulas are limited to new hires, who are not yet vested in a pension. But significant costs savings are delayed until much of the workforce is made up of the new hires, which can take decades.
The Hoover commission fears that “pension costs will crush government,” crowding out funding for other programs. The common reforms of increasing employee contributions and cutting pensions for new hires do not yield enough savings.
Like employers in the private sector, the commission said, government employers must be able to reduce pension benefits not yet earned, even though this “may entail the courts having to revisit prior court decisions.”
One version of a pension initiative proposed by a reform group would cut unearned pensions for current employees. Attorney Jeff Chang is among the experts who think pensions promised current workers can be cut in a fiscal emergency.
The Hoover commission recommendation would not affect payments to current retirees. In Colorado, Minnesota and South Dakota lawsuits have resulted from attempts to cut annual increases intended to help retiree pensions keep pace with inflation.
A labor coalition responding to the Hoover commission report said government employees have been hit with pay cuts and furlough days and, in some areas, have agreed to increase their pension contributions and give new hires lower pensions.
“Across California public employees are doing their part to help meet the pension challenges caused by the market collapse,” Dave Low, chairman of Californians for Health Care and Retirement Security, said in a news release.
He said a freeze and roll back of all pensions is not the answer for 85 public retirement systems that evolved to meet the needs of different communities and the retirement security of different workers.
The Hoover commission report is the most comprehensive look at California public pensions since a report issued three years ago by the Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The commission chaired by Gerald Parsky concluded that most pension systems were reasonably well-funded and not threatening to “crush” budgets. Instead, the alarm was about an estimated $118 billion unfunded state and local debt for retiree health care.
But now the new Hoover commission report said the 10 largest California public pension systems, with 90 percent of all members and assets, reported a combined shortfall last year of $240 billion.
Pension funds expecting two-thirds of their revenue from investments were shocked by the market crash. The report cites additional factors: payroll growth, retirement at age 55 or 50, longer life expectancy, and generous pensions.
One of the problems in motivating action for the dramatic pension overhaul recommended by the Hoover commission is that the big pension hit on state and local budgets is still mainly a forecast.
Here’s an extended quote from one of the key passages in the report:
“The tension between rising pension costs and lean government budgets is often presented today in a political context, with stakeholders debating the severity of the problem and how long it will last.
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