By Ed Mendel
Monday, April 9, 2012
SANTA ROSA — A two-house legislative committee is working with Gov. Brown’s Department of Finance on a ‘hybrid’ retirement plan for new state and local government hires, a committee member told a forum here last week.
Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, twice referred to a “cash balance” plan while talking about a cost-cutting hybrid, proposed by Brown, that combines a lower pension with a 401(k)-style individual investment plan.
At a hearing in February, the committee was briefed on the cash balance plan of the California State Teachers Retirement System, a pension supplement that guarantees a bond-based rate of return on individual investments.
In a typical 401(k)-style plan there is no protection against major investment losses, widespread during a stock market crash in 2008, or a prolonged period of low earnings like some experts predict for the next decade.
A hybrid plan that combines a lower pension with a cash balance plan instead of a 401(k)-style plan could reduce savings for government employers, who would be responsible for covering the gap if earnings fall below the cash balance guarantee.
But protecting workers from the risk of losses in a typical 401(k)-style plan might make a hybrid more acceptable to public employee unions, who have criticized the governor’s hybrid plan at hearings and in news releases.
“We are working on different models to design a plan that will protect the low-paid workers and also be fair to the higher-paid workers,” Allen told the forum. “It’s complex and we are getting a lot of help from the state Department of Finance on this.”
Brown’s proposal expected the hybrid plan to be developed after the legislation passed. His finance department told a hearing that outside experts would help develop a hybrid plan in about six months, before a Jan. 1, 2013, deadline in the legislation.
The governor’s proposal is a retirement plan that replaces about 75 percent of annual income on the job after a 30-year career, with roughly a third each coming from the smaller pension, the investment plan and federal Social Security.
If the worker is not in Social Security, the pension would be two-thirds of the retirement. A cap on the retirement plan would be based on the Social Security earnings limit, $110,000 this year.
“The whole concept of capping pensions at higher levels is being discussed and probably will be part of the proposal that comes forward,” Allen said.
The assemblyman said the governor’s 12-point pension reform plan is mainly conceptual. Developing legislation for the broad range of California public pension plans is a complicated task, he said, but the committee hopes to issue a proposal in June or July.
“I understand the press believes there has been a long silence on this,” Allen said. “I’ve been advocating for an interim report to let people know what the timelines are, what the expectations are.”
“But we are working on it,” he said. “I do agree when there has been so much controversy and concern on this it would be irresponsible for the Legislature not to respond to the governor’s proposal.”
The six-member committee is scheduled to hold its fourth hearing Friday (April 13) in Chino, this one focusing on county retirement plans. Allen, an attorney, has negotiated labor contracts and served as executive director of SEIU, Local 707.
Asked by an audience member if public pensions are sustainable, Allen said the intent of the governor’s plan is to “inflect a cost curve,” reducing projected government spending on retirement in the future.
“That can be done over a period of time,” he said, “whether done through increased contributions, changing the benefit mix. That’s something we are talking about.”
Allen said the committee also is discussing what some call “intergenerational compacts” and the transfer of debt to future generations through, for example, Social Security or other means. He said the committee wants to strike a balance.
“So what we are trying to do is be fair to the younger generation and also be fair to those who gave their lives in service,” he said.
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