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California WatchBlog

July 15, 2010 | Lance Williams

To conceal the fearsome prospective impact of California’s pension bomb from the taxpayers, bureaucrats sometimes play hide the ball.

When they do, it’s up to open-government advocates to drag them into court and make them do the right thing.

That was the dynamic recently in Sacramento Superior Court, where the California First Amendment Coalition and the Sacramento Bee won an order forcing the local county pension board to reveal the names and payouts of local public pensioners – including those cashing out at upwards of $100,000 per year in taxpayers’ funds.

It was the fourth time in the past year that a California pension board spent public funds on lawyers in an attempt to conceal pension information from the taxpayers who are footing the soaring bill.

So far, judges in Orange, Stanislaus, Contra Costa and Sacramento counties have ruled that under terms of the state’s Public Records Act, information about public employees’ wages and pensions must be revealed.

But the litigation may continue: The Bee quoted the CEO of the Sacramento retirement system as saying he wanted to appeal. And in a filing in the lawsuit, a lawyer for the pension system said he knew of 10 other California counties, Orange among them, that were balking at revealing information about pension payouts to their retired public employees. (California Public Employees’ Retirement System makes the information public about state pensioners.)

The dispute is playing out in an atmosphere of fiscal urgency. In the past 10 years, the state’s annual contribution to pensions has increased from $145 million to $3.5 billion per year. The unfunded liability on California state pensions is half a trillion dollars, according to one study. And policymakers fear that without reform, future lawmakers will be forced to gut basic state services simply to pay the retirement benefits of past employees.

“Pensions are a huge issue,” says San Francisco lawyer Karl Olson, who represented CFAC in the Sacramento case. In that context, the government agencies’ attempt to keep pension information a secret “makes my blood boil,” he says.

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