April 28th, 2010, 12:54 pm · posted by Teri Sforza, Register staff writer

We told you that membership in California’s $100,000-plus public pension club leaped by 50 percent over the last year.

But this heavy load will grow exponentially heavier, and the big picture is even more disturbing than that.

To illustrate, we do a little number crunching with Marcia Fritz, the CPA who is president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility (and who regularly updates the $100,000 club database with numbers from the California Public Employees Retirement System — the largest such system in the nation).

First, let’s strip judges from the club list (as they’re paid at a much higher rate than most of the state workforce, now about $178,000 a year). Consider these numbers:

* In 2006, the non-judge membership in the $100,000-plus public pension club was 1,700.
* Last year, the club had — gulp — 4,878 members.
* And now, there are 7,832 members.

“So 62% average annual increase in 2007-2009, and 61% increase in 2010,” Fritz writes to us. “It’s fair to say non-judge members are increasing annually at a 60+% clip.”

California can’t sustain this sort of growth, say folks from across the political spectrum. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa frets that retirement benefits will eat up 19 percent of the city’s budget this year; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says that pension reform is key to the state’s economic survival.

But how, precisely, did pension costs come to escalate so quickly and dramatically? Orange County deserves much of the blame — or credit, depending on your point of view — for that.

In 1999, the state Legislature was swimming in money. So it decided to spread the wealth and hike tax-guaranteed pensions for state employees.

In 2000, a follow-up bill by then-Assemblyman Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, gave municipal governments like cities and counties the same pension-boosting power.

And then all hell broke loose, if you will.

“It is widely considered one of the worst financial decisions in the state’s history – a toxin spreading through the budget books of cities and counties across California,” our colleagues Tony Saavedra and Brian Joseph wrote in a prize-winning series last year.

“Like lemmings jumping off a cliff, local governments copied the Legislature’s 1999 decision to increase tax-guaranteed pensions for public safety workers and other public employees.

To read entire story, click here.