Pensions

Ed Mendel
August 22, 2016

The one thing some pension reformers say is needed to cut the cost of unaffordable public pensions: give current workers a less costly retirement benefit for work done in the future, while protecting pension amounts already earned.

It’s allowed in the remaining private-sector pensions. But California is one of about a dozen states that have what has become known as the “California rule,” which is based on a series of state court decisions, a key one in 1955.

The pension offered at hire becomes a “vested right,” protected by contract law, that cannot be cut, unless offset by a new benefit of comparable value. The pension can be increased, however, even retroactively for past work as happened for state workers under landmark legislation, SB 400 in 1999.

Last week, an appeals court issued a ruling in a Marin County case that is a “game changer” if upheld by the state Supreme Court, said a news release from former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who wants to put a pension reform initiative on the 2018 ballot.

Justice James Richman of the First District Court of Appeal wrote that “while a public employee does have a ‘vested right’ to a pension, that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension — not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension.

“And the Legislature may, prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pension. So long as the Legislature’s modifications do not deprive the employee of a ‘reasonable’ pension, there is no constitutional violation.”

The ruling came in a suit by Marin County employee unions contending their vested rights were violated by a pension reform enacted in 2012 that prevents pension boosts from unused vacation and leave, bonuses, terminal pay and other things.

These “anti-spiking” provisions apply to current workers. The major part of the reform legislation, including lower pension formulas and a cap, only apply to new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013, who have not yet attained vested rights.

The California Public Employees Retirement System expects the reform pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Brown to save $29 billion to $38 billion over 30 years, not a major impact on a current CalPERS shortfall or “unfunded liability” of $139 billion.

Similarly, legislation two years ago will increase the rate paid to school districts to the California State Teachers Retirement System from 8.25 percent of pay to 19.1 percent, while the rate paid by teachers increases from 8 percent of pay to 10.25 percent.

The limited teacher rate increase followed the California rule. The new benefit offsetting the 2.5 percent rate hike vests a routine annual 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment, which previously could have been suspended, though that rarely if ever happened.

While mayor of San Jose four years ago, Reed got approval from 69 percent of voters for a broad reform to cut retirement costs that were taking 20 percent of the city general fund. A superior court approved a number of the measure’s provisions.

But a plan to cut the cost of pensions current workers earn in the future by giving them an option (contribute up to an additional 16 percent of pay to continue the current pension or switch to a lower pension) was rejected by the court, citing the California rule.

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