John Moorlach

Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), second from right, bids farewell to fellow lawmakers at the end of the Senate floor session in Sacramento on Sept. 11, 2015. Moorlach is a leading voice in the Legislature against skyrocketing debt being piled up by public pension systems. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

By Patrick McGreevy
April 10, 2016

Republican state Sen. John Moorlach of Costa Mesa has emerged as a leading voice in the Legislature against skyrocketing debt piled up by public pension systems.

But some in the pension reform movement say the former Orange County treasurer may be contributing to the problem: Moorlach receives an $83,827 government pension check from the Orange County Employees Retirement System while making $100,113 a year as a senator.

At least 16 other state lawmakers collect two checks each month, including Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), who retired two years ago at 50 as a captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. When added to his legislative pay, Cooper’s annual pension of $173,820 brings his total income each year to $273,000.

Advocates for a pension system overhaul say legislators are entitled to the benefits they earned. But, they add, the costly pension perk is an example of what is wrong with public retirement benefits: Government workers can retire too soon with lucrative benefits that the pension systems cannot sustain.

“It’s a form of double-dipping, which makes a lot of people angry,” said former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who is planning a pension reform initiative for the 2018 state ballot. “Most of us have to work until we are 65 or 67 before we can retire when Social Security kicks in.”

It’s legal under current rules, said Dan Pellissier, president of the group California Pension Reform.

“But the optics are poor, certainly for an elected official to be taking another public salary after retiring,” Pellissier said.

The practice was uncovered by a search of pension system records by the Los Angeles Times just as public policy makers are debating both legislative pay and excesses in public pensions.

Last month, state Controller Betty Yee reported that the public pension system has a long-term unfunded liability of $63.7 billion.

On April 27, a state panel will meet to consider whether to grant pay raises to California lawmakers who already receive the highest base pay of any legislators in the country, $100,113, far above second-place Pennsylvania’s roughly $85,000.

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