More Than 100 Local Governments Pursue Tax Hikes to Meet Soaring Pension Bills

TaxesNine months after a League of California Cities report warned that pension costs were increasingly unsustainable, more than 100 local governments in the Golden State are asking voters for tax hikes on Nov. 6 – which Bond Buyer says is nearly double the record of 56 set in November 2016.

The Nov. 6 measures are on top of 36 city and county taxes that went before voters in the June 2018 primary.

Historically, local hikes in sales and hotel taxes are approved at least 60 percent of the time in California. They’re generally linked to a specific local need – not growing labor costs. With CalPERS’ bills to local governments on track to double from 2015 to 2025, such claims would seem dubious this election year.

Nevertheless – aware that voters likely would be cool to the idea of raising taxes to pay for pensions far more generous than those in the private sector – even now, many local elected leaders depict the hikes as necessary to pay for public safety or for fixing potholes and longer library hours.

Local officials assert hikes are about adding services

In the lead-up to the June primary, virtually the entire city leadership ranks in Chula Vista campaigned for a half-cent sales tax hike on the grounds that it was crucial to adding dozens of badly needed police officers and firefighters.

The tactic worked as Chula Vistans backed the increase. But city leaders’ claims of a coming public-safety hiring spree were impossible to square with the numbers from the city’s budget office. In April, it warned of “bleak” times ahead for San Diego County’s second-largest city, including an annual structural deficit that could reach $26.6 million by 2023 – with surging pension bills mostly to blame.

In Santa Ana, where voters are being asked to raise sales taxes by 1.5 percentage points on Nov. 6, the campaign for the tax hike rarely mentions pension costs.

But once again, a city bureaucrat framed the tax hike in more candid fashion.

“We’re not immune to the labor cost increases that are occurring throughout the state of California and throughout the country. We need to be able to provide additional services to the community. The question before the voters is what level of services do they want from their government?” Jorge Garcia, a top aide in the Santa Ana city manager’s office, told Bond Buyer.

Santa Ana’s pension bill is expected to go from $45.1 million in 2017-2018 to $81.2 million by 2022-2023 – an 80 percent increase.

‘The cause of this point-blank is CalPERS’

But some politicians have no patience with misleading narratives. “The cause of this point-blank is CalPERS and our pension fund,” Lodi Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said in June when the Lodi City Council decided to put a half-cent sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot.

As the League of California Cities reported in January, “With local pension costs outstripping revenue growth, many cites face difficult choices that will be compounded in the next recession. Under current law, cities have two choices – attempt to increase revenue or reduce services.”

The severity of the pension crisis is illustrated by the fact that it is sharply worsening in a period in which there is often seemingly good news on the fiscal front.

State revenue is expected to go up in 2018-19 for a 10th straight year.

County assessors report a 6.5 percent increase in property taxes this year. That’s triple the rate of inflation and comes even with Proposition 13 preventing increases of more than 2 percent on homes, businesses and other properties that didn’t change hands.

In July, CalPERS announced a second straight year of above-average earnings on its investment portfolio, which rose in value to $357 billion.

This prompted a news release from a top state union leader disputing talk of CalPERS’ poor health.

“While it’s important not to focus on one-year returns, these returns continue the long-term trend of CalPERS performing above or near its long-term discount rates and once again defying the sky-is-falling predictions of system critics,” wrote Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Association.

But despite the good returns, as of July, CalPERS only had 71 percent of funds needed to pay for its long-term financial liabilities, the Sacramento Bee reported. That’s far below the 80 percent funding level that is considered the absolute minimum for a healthy pension system.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Locals Governments Seek New Levies Despite $4 Billion Property Tax Surge

taxesLocal government officials throughout the state got some very good financial news when county tax assessors toted up changes in taxable property values for their 2018-19 budgets.

The state’s uber-strong real estate market generated a 6.51 percent increase in those values, adding another $374 billion to the property tax rolls and pushing the total to $6.1 trillion.

That increase, three times the rate of inflation, translates into $4-plus billion more in revenue for cities, counties and other local governments. While schools also receive property taxes, they don’t directly benefit from the increase because of how state aid is structured.

The big winners are cities because, unlike counties and schools, they are almost totally dependent on local taxes and fees to finance their budgets. San Francisco, which is both a city and a county, reported the state’s strongest assessed valuation gain, 10.35 percent.

The very strong growth in property tax revenue, however, raises a pithy question: Why then are so many local governments, cities especially, complaining that they can’t balance their budgets unless local voters raise taxes?

There are 254 local tax increases on the November ballot – sales taxes, parcel taxes, utility taxes and hotel/motel taxes, mostly – according to the California Taxpayers Association, 65 percent more than there were four years ago.

The reason is that even with strong property tax gains, local governments’ pension costs are growing faster than revenues, thus putting the squeeze on their budgets.

Cities have been hit the hardest by increases in mandatory payments to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) as it tries to shrink its large “unfunded liability.” City officials have repeatedly complained about the specter of insolvency if pension payments continue to grow and the League of California Cities has labeled the situation “unsustainable.”

With very rare exceptions, however, officials who place the tax increases on the ballot will not publicly say the extra revenue is needed to offset rising pension costs. Officials believe that telling the truth would make voters less likely to vote for the new taxes. It could also make employee unions less likely to provide money for tax campaigns.

Rather, on the advice of high-priced consultants, they say the money is needed for popular police and fire services and parks.

Unfortunately, most local news media are carelessly complicit in this conspiracy of silence, tending to accept the official reasons at face value, rather than analyze them critically. That’s true even though data about what revenue the new taxes would generate and projections of pension costs are readily available.

Over the weekend, for instance, the Sacramento Bee published a long article about proposed tax increases in Central Valley cities, quoting officials about what they hoped to do with the extra revenue, including Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who called his one-cent sales tax hike a “game changer.”

However, the article only tersely mentioned pensions as something brought up by unnamed “critics,” even though the city’s own budget complains about pension costs and data indicate that the new taxes would largely go to pensions.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel, in a similar piece about new hotel/motel tax proposals in its region, took the opposite – and more responsible – tack by delving into how pensions are straining local budgets and driving tax hikes.

The Sentinel’s article, unfortunately, is a very rare exception. Otherwise, local officials and local media seem to believe that ignorance will be blissful.

olumnist for CALmatters

State treasurer seeks probe of CalPERS CEO

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 21: A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building July 21, 2009 in Sacramento, California. CalPERS, the state's public employees retirement fund, reported a loss of 23.4%, its largest annual loss. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

A rowdy, muckraking financial blog that has repeatedly raised later-corroborated concerns about how the California Public Employees’ Retirement System operates has gotten traction with one of its new allegations.

The Naked Capitalism blog’s report that CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost had misled the giant pension fund about her education prompted state Treasurer John Chiang to seek an independent investigation.

Naked Capitalism blogger Susan Webber offered evidence that Frost – who does not have a college degree – allegedly told a consultant who evaluated her job application before her hiring in 2016 that she was enrolled in a degree program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The Sacramento Bee reported that she hadn’t taken any classes at the college since 2010. Before coming to CalPERS, Frost led Washington’s Department of Retirement Services, which oversees more than a dozen defined-benefit state pension funds.

In May, Webber’s reporting led CalPERS to oust Chief Financial Officer Charles Asubonten for making misleading claims about his employment history before he was hired.

With CalPERS’ new mess, a potentially big problem for Frost is that while she might be able to dismiss questions about whether she was honest over her education as the result of a misunderstanding, Naked Capitalism’s recent reports actually raise bigger concerns.

Accuracy of death-benefits claim questioned

For one example, Naked Capitalism writer Yves Smith last week wrote a persuasive analysis that argued that CalPERS had cherry-picked among data in claiming it was doing a better job processing death benefits in 45 days or less.

“CalPERS used an obviously cooked-up basis of comparison. Rather than take the same time period in successive years, CalPERS instead chose a set number of cases to examine (300 each) before and after a suspiciously arbitrary-looking cutoff date, February 12. Under questioning, the presenters admitted the ‘before’ cases included ones submitted in November and December,” Smith wrote.

“Why does this matter? The beginning of November through end of January is certain to be the worst time of year in terms of efficiency for a government agency. First, you have a high density of holidays compared to the rest of the year (Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Martin Luther King Day). Output suffers due to distractions like holiday shopping, more interaction with family members, and even getting out of the mood to work. Second, many employees also take vacation days around these holidays (and recall that CalPERS employees have generous vacation allowances). So there was also almost certainly reduced manpower to process claims during this period.”

There is no sign that Chiang or others with oversight authority are looking at this allegation. Last week, the CalPERS board made its feelings known about Frost, voting to raise her pay by 4 percent to $330,720 and to give her an $84,873 bonus.

Board officials suspicious of blog’s motives

A Sacramento Bee story last week about Naked Capitalism’s critiques of CalPERS gave space to CalPERS’ officials’ claims that there is something suspicious or perhaps partisan about an East Coast-based blog paying so much attention to a pension system across the nation.

In comments that the Bee reported were intended for Webber, CalPERS Vice President Rob Feckner said, “You’re not from California. Why would you be involved in a California election for that board? Why is it so important to you to get someone elected in that board?” Webber has been sharply critical of Feckner and other board members who have close relationships with Frost.

Naked Capitalism’s tart response: “CalPERS likes to relish its status as the biggest, highest profile public pension fund, but when it gets bad press, its stance is that it’s a parochial organization and why isn’t it left alone?” wrote Yves Smith.

No one familiar with the blog would consider it obsessed with CalPERS. The website’s roster of authors with Wall Street or banking backgrounds is long and their targets are widely varied. The site’s index cites nearly 5,000 stories about the global finance industry versus 98 about CalPERS.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Why Is Public Employee Disability Claim Data Being Kept Secret?

TransparencyIn the preamble to California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s 1953 law governing the public’s access to government meetings, the Legislature noted, “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.” Likewise, the people “do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” The public insists “on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

The same noble sentiment forms the foundation of California’s public-records laws, which govern the release of government documents. Yet a new lawsuit alleges that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which operates the largest state pension fund in the country, has been withholding some information that’s necessary to help the public to oversee the system and protect it from waste, fraud and abuse. It deals with disability benefits paid to pensioners.

Specifically, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which cofounded with California Policy Center Transparent California (the website that publicizes the pay and benefit packages received by California employees), argues that CalPERS has denied its “request for records which would document the type (service, disability or industrial disability) of benefit received,” despite many requests. This information is so important because of the many news reports about the questionable workers’ compensation claims, the lawsuit argues. CalPERS itself recognizes the problem—”it has established a disability fraud tip hotline where it encourages the public to call in and report cases of suspected disability fraud.”

If CalPERS expects the public to help root out bogus disability claims by public employees, then why shouldn’t it provide the public with information that helps it do so? The research institute is merely seeking a one-word designation of the type of pensions that California retirees are receiving. Such information has not been specifically exempted from the California Public Records Act. Anything not exempted is, according to the lawsuit, fair game for public disclosure.

“CalPERS’ claimed sensitivity of information pertaining to the benefit ‘type’ (disability or service) is untenable because hearings related to appeals of denial of disability pensions are public hearings and recorded for broadcast,” according to NPRI’s court filings. Furthermore, the lawsuit argues that CalPERS “has consistently indicated” that it would not release that information. The lawsuit includes correspondence between NPRI and CalPERS backing that claim. CalPERS has yet to respond to the lawsuit and has declined comment to the media, but it has indicated that it believes such information to be an invasion of the recipient’s privacy. …

Click here to read the full article from Reason.com

The California Legislature passes the pension buck – again

PensionsIn truth, Sacramento politicians are very dependable. You can depend on them to raise your taxes, pass meaningless resolutions attacking President Trump and hurt the private sector by eliminating workplace arbitration and enacting even more burdensome regulations. And finally, they are very dependable in avoiding the most important threats to California’s financial solvency, especially dealing with unfunded pension liabilities.

Much has been written about California’s unfunded pension crisis. By 2024, normal contribution payments by cities and counties to CalPERS are estimated to total nearly $3 billion, and the unfunded contribution payments are estimated to total $5.5 billion. That shortfall of nearly $3 billion a year will continue to increase unless reforms are enacted – soon.

California’s pension crisis exists in large part due to the very nature of defined-benefit plans. Unlike defined-contribution plans, where the taxpayers’ obligation to each public employee ends with every pay period, defined-benefit plans depend on a projection of future investment returns. And therein lies the problem. California has been horribly wrong in its application of assumed rates of return, leading to hundreds of billions in unfunded liabilities.

And this shortfall is occurring in good economic times when the state of California is relatively flush. A recession will quickly expose this short-sighted thinking, yet the Legislature continues to believe that local municipalities will continue to pass regressive sales tax increases to bail themselves out. Already, 24 cities have sales tax rates at or over 9.5 percent, and more cities are destined to join them.

To read the entire column, please click here.

The 100 highest pensions in the CalPERS and CalSTRS systems

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 21: A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building July 21, 2009 in Sacramento, California. CalPERS, the state's public employees retirement fund, reported a loss of 23.4%, its largest annual loss. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

How much does it take to make it into the 100 top-earning CalPERS or CalSTRS retirees? A pension of more than $219,000.

CalPERS is the retirement system for most state employees. CalSTRS is the retirement system for most certificated school district employees.

Both systems have faced scrutiny for years due to large unfunded liabilities — they don’t have enough money at the moment to pay all the benefits they have promised. In response, both systems have increased the required contributions for local governments that are part of the system.

Most CalPERS and CalSTRS retirees will never make anywhere near the pensions earned by the top-earning 100 retirees. The 100 top-earning CalPERS employees, for instance, make up about one-hundreth of 1 percent of CalPERS beneficiaries. The pensions paid to them in 2016 were equivalent to about one-tenth of 1 percent of all benefits paid to CalPERS beneficiaries. …

Click here to see the 100 highest pensions in the CalPERS and CalSTRS systems as reported by the Sacramento Bee

Local Officials Avoid Pension Discussion as They Push New Taxes

TaxesWhile public and media attention to this week’s primary election focused – understandably so – on contests for governor, U.S. senator and a handful of congressional seats, there were other important issues on Californians’ ballots.

One, which received scant attention at best, was another flurry of local government and school tax and bond proposals.

The California Taxpayers Association counted 98 proposals to raise local taxes directly, or indirectly through issuance of bonds that would require higher property taxes to repay.

The proposed taxes on legal marijuana sales and other retail sales and “parcel taxes” on pieces of real estate were particularly noteworthy for how they were presented to voters.

Most followed the playbook that highly paid strategists peddle to local officials, advising them to promise improvements in popular services, such as police and fire protection and parks, and avoid any mention of the most important factor in deteriorating fiscal circumstances – the soaring cost of public employee pensions.

City, county and school district officials howl constantly, albeit mostly in private, that ever-increasing, mandatory payments to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) are driving some entities to the brink of insolvency.

However, those officials are just as consistently unwilling to tell their voters that pension costs are the basic underlying factor in their requests for tax increases.

Why?

Tying tax increases to pensions, rather than popular services, not only would make voters less likely to vote for them but make public employee unions less willing to pony up campaign funds to sell the tax increases to voters. It is, in effect, a conspiracy of silence.

This week’s local tax and bond measures are just a tuneup for what will likely be a much larger batch on the November ballot.

It’s a well-established axiom of California politics that low-turnout elections, such as a non-presidential primary in June, are not as friendly to tax proposals as higher-turnout general elections, such as the one in November. Primaries tend to draw more older white voters who often shun taxes, while general elections have younger and more ethnically diverse electorates more attuned to taxes.

As local officials make plans to place those proposals on the November ballot, a bill making its way through the Legislature could skew local tax politics even more.

Senate Bill 958 would allow one school district, Davis Unified, to exempt its own employees from paying the $620 per year parcel tax that its voters approved two years ago.

The Senate approved SB 958 on a 24-19 vote last month, sending it to the Assembly. It’s being carried by Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat whose district includes Davis.

The bill’s rationale is that housing is so expensive in Davis that teachers and other school employees cannot afford to live there, and that exempting them from the parcel tax would, at least in theory, make housing more affordable.

However, if SB 958 becomes law, it would set a dangerous precedent. It doesn’t take much imagination to see local government and school unions throughout the state demanding similar exemptions from new taxes with the threat, explicit or implicit, that they would refuse to finance tax measure campaigns.

The very people who benefit most from additional taxes by receiving higher salaries and/or better fringe benefits thus would be able to avoid paying those taxes themselves.

Where would it end?

olumnist for CALmatters

California Can’t Afford to Play Politics with Pensions

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 21: A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building July 21, 2009 in Sacramento, California. CalPERS, the state's public employees retirement fund, reported a loss of 23.4%, its largest annual loss. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

As a former mayor of the city of Newport Beach, I took very seriously the financial obligations related to our pension liabilities, the impact of pension costs on city services and the ability to keep our commitments to our employees, which is why recent developments in California concern me.

For years, a small group of voices nationwide has called for universities, pension funds, and other groups who hold investments in fossil fuels to abandon those investments. This movement, known as divestment, believes that abstaining from investment in fossil fuels is key to combating climate change. However, the divestment movement has found it difficult to gain traction, in large part because making political statements through public or institutional investments runs counter to the fiduciary responsibility of pension fund managers. Those who depend on pensions expect their fund managers to make decisions based off sound and profitable investment strategy, not political agendas. There is also no real evidence that walking away from fossil fuel stocks does anything to actually help the environment.

Frustrated by their failure to gain ground, divestment advocates have turned to new methods of create momentum. For example, state lawmakers in California have been asked to consider a rash of bills related to pension funds. In 2017, the legislature considered two bills related to this topic. Senate Bill 560, which ultimately died, would have required CalPERS and CalSTRS, pension funds that serve California’s teachers and public employees, to consider climate risk when managing their funds. Assembly Bill 20 forced these pension funds to examine their financial holdings related to the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. This year, a third bill, Senate Bill 964, would require CalPERS and CalSTRS to report every three years on any investments related to climate change.  If these well-intentioned but misguided policies are enacted, the impacts will be felt by cities through rising pension liabilities and a reduction in funds available for basic city services like public safety and parks.

Rebranding their efforts to focus on climate risks, as opposed to directly calling for the abandonment of fossil fuel holdings, divestment advocates are taking new approaches toward the same goal. But while some might view these bills as well-intentioned measures to help the environment, the reality is quite different.

For starters, there is no evidence that these measures do anything to help the environment or combat climate change. Even Assembly Bill 20, with its targeted focus on a single pipeline, has had no impacts on the Dakota Access Pipeline’s investments or implementation. Rather, the value of passing such a measure lies mostly in its symbolism, a fact acknowledged by Bill McKibben, an environmental activist helping to drive the divestment agenda.

In practice, “climate risk” measures open the door for playing politics with retirement funds. This is especially dangerous for large funds tasked with protecting the future of Californians. Consider, for example, that the state’s public employees fund, CalPERS, manages the largest public pension fund in the United States, serving nearly 2 million people and holding around $300 billion in assets. CalSTRS, which serves education employees, is the world’s largest educator-only pension fund and the second largest pension fund in the U.S., managing a portfolio of more than $200 billion. Recent figures show that more than 200,000 retirees currently depend on CalSTRS for their pensions. Divestment from tobacco related stocks has already cost the CalPERS system more than $3 billion according to recent studies. We simply cannot afford more of this waste.

There is clearly an incredible amount at stake when it comes to managing these funds and others like them in California, with job number one being safeguarding the money that these employees worked so hard to earn. Both CalPERS and CalSTRS, California’s two largest pension funds, explicitly require fund managers to adhere to their fiduciary responsibilities. Misguided legislation requiring pension managers to follow political agendas when managing money only distracts from that duty, putting public funds and retirement nest eggs at great risk. Now more than ever, pension managers must focus on achieving returns that address the looming unfunded pension crisis, not on playing politics.

The truth is that divestment and related ideas like climate risk have always lived on shaky ground. Instead of walking away from investments in fossil fuels and losing a seat at the table, isn’t the better approach to affect change through active engagement? Instead of requiring pension fund managers to mitigate climate risks, shouldn’t we allow them to fulfill their fiduciary duty and leave climate discussions to policymakers? Hopefully retirees and their elected officials are paying attention to this dangerous rebrand of the divestment movement.  The consequences are higher unfunded pension liabilities and the crowding out of municipal services.  With today’s turbulent financial markets, it is more important than ever that we protect the hard-earned money of Californians.

Keith Curry is a former Mayor of Newport Beach and former financial advisor to state and local governments.

Who will end up paying CalPERS’ $168 billion in unfunded liabilities?

pension-2California’s public employee pension systems have immense gaps – called “unfunded liabilities” – between what they have in assets and what they will need to meet their obligations to retirees.

The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), the nation’s largest pension trust fund, and other state and local systems are desperately trying to close those shortfalls, or at least reduce them, mostly by ramping up mandatory “contributions” from public agencies.

Everyone is getting hit by those rapidly escalating demands and it’s no secret that they are pushing some school districts and cities to the brink of insolvency, forcing them to slash other spending, even vital police and fire services, and/or seek higher taxes from their voters to keep their heads above water.

Moreover, the squeeze is destined to get even tighter. For instance, cities that are now paying 50 cents into CalPERS for every dollar of police officers’ salaries are projecting that it could go to 75 or 80 cents within a few years.

School districts are feeling a double whammy – a more than doubling of their mandatory payments to the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) for their professional staffs, plus increasing demands from CalPERS for their support staffs.

The state government itself is not immune. Last week, CalPERS told Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators that they must include $6.3 billion in the 2018-19 state budget to cover state employee pensions, making it one of the budget’s largest single items.

CalPERS officials send mixed messages to the public about the gap, on one hand saying that they must jack up contributions to avoid having it grow so large that the trust fund can never catch up, but on the other crowing about recent investment earnings and insisting that retirees and employees should feel confident that their money will be there when it’s needed.

This month, the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has followed the nationwide public pension issue closely, issued a report that examines the systems’ unfunded liabilities, and explains why some states have big gaps while others are fully funded, or nearly so.

Nationwide, Pew calculated, the total gap for all states grew by $215 billion between 2015 and 2016 to $1.4 trillion – and that assumes that the systems will meet their investment earnings assumptions of 7-plus percent a year.

Actual 2016 earnings, including those in California, fell extremely short of those assumptions, but even if they had been met, Pew says, unfunded liabilities would still have grown because most states, including California, also fell short on employer payments needed to cover ever-growing pension obligations.

That’s an important point. Even though CalPERS and other systems have sharply accelerated payments from employers, they still fell short in 2016 of what was needed to keep the gap from growing. California’s contribution shortfall, in fact, was the nation’s sixth highest in relative terms.

Pew agrees with the official CalPERS calculation that it was 69 percent funded in 2016, which is slightly higher than the 66 percent level for state pension systems nationwide. That’s a $168 billion unfunded liability – again assuming that it will meet its earnings goals, which is dropping slowly to 7 percent.

In contrast, New York’s system is 91 percent funded because it steadily dealt with earnings downturns and funded benefit increases, rather than allow shortfalls to accumulate, as California and many other states did, until they reached the crisis point.

CalPERS says that an uptick in 2017 earnings, to more than 11 percent, has raised its funding level to 71 percent. That’s obviously good news, but CalPERS’ own staff estimates that earnings over the next decade should barely average 6 percent a year, which, if true, would mean the system would either have to allow its funding level to decline or hit state and local government employers – and, of course, their taxpayers – even harder.

It’s a balancing act. CalPERS and the other systems are trying to avoid insolvency without driving their members over the fiscal cliff. Rising pension costs are driving many cities to ask voters for sales tax increases this year, but they won’t be telling those voters the truth about why new revenue is needed, fearing candor would spark a backlash.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

The Underrecognized, Undervalued, Underpaid, Unfunded Pension Liabilities

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 21: A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building July 21, 2009 in Sacramento, California. CalPERS, the state's public employees retirement fund, reported a loss of 23.4%, its largest annual loss. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

“It’s the economy, stupid.”
–  Campaign slogan, Clinton campaign, 1992

To paraphrase America’s 42nd president, when it comes to public sector pensions – their financial health and the policies that govern them – it’s the unfunded liability, stupid.

The misunderstood, obfuscated, unaccountable, underrecognized, undervalued, underpaid, unfunded pension liabilities.

According to CalPERS own data, California’s cities that are part of the CalPERS system will make “normal” contributions this year totaling $1.3 billion. Their “unfunded” contributions will be 41% greater, $1.8 billion. As for counties that participate in CalPERS, this year their “normal” contributions will total $586 million, and their “unfunded” contributions will be 36% greater at $607 million.

That’s nothing, however. Again using CalPERS own estimates, in just six years the unfunded contribution for cities will more than double, from $1.8 billion today, to $3.9 billion in 2024. The unfunded contribution for counties will nearly triple, from $607 million today to $1.5 billion in 2024 (download spreadsheet summary for all CalPERS cities and counties).

Put another way, by 2024, “normal contribution” payments by cities and counties to CalPERS are estimated to total $2.8 billion, and the “unfunded contribution” payments are estimated to total almost exactly twice as much, $5.5 billion.

So what?

For starters, every pension reform that has ever made it through the state legislature, including the Public Employee Pension Reform Act of 2013(PEPRA), does NOT require public employees to share in the cost to pay the unfunded liability. The implications are profound. As public agency press releases crow over the phasing in of a “50% employee share” of the costs of pensions, not mentioned is the fact that this 50% only applies to 1/3 of what’s being paid. Public employees are only required to share, via payroll withholding, in the “normal cost” of the pension.

Now if the “normal cost” were ever estimated at anywhere near the actual cost to fund a pension, this wouldn’t matter. But CalPERS, according to their own most recent financial report, is only 68% funded. That is, they have investments totaling $326 billion, and liabilities totaling $477 billion. This gap, $151 billion, is how much more CalPERS needs to have invested in order for their pension system to be fully funded.

A pension system’s “liability” refers to the present value of every future pension payment that every current participant – active or retired – has earned so far. In a 100% funded system, if every active employee retired tomorrowand no more payments ever went into the system, if the invested assets were equal to that liability, those assets plus the estimated future earnings on those invested assets would be enough to pay 100% of the estimated pension payments in the future, until every individual beneficiary died.

A pension system’s “normal payment” refers to the amount of money that has to be paid into a fully funded system each year to fund the present value of additional pension benefits earned by active employees in that year. When the normal payment isn’t enough, the unfunded liability grows.

And wow, has it grown.

CalPERS is $151 billion in the hole. All of California’s state and local pension systems combined, CalPERS, CalSTRS, and the many city and county independent systems, are estimated to be $326 billion in the hole. And that’s extrapolated from estimates recognized by the pension funds themselves. Scenarios that employ more conservative earnings assumptions calculate total unfunded liabilities that are easily double that amount.

With respect to CalPERS, how did this unfunded liability get so big?

An earlier CPC analysis released earlier this year attempts to answer this. Theories include the following: (1) Letting the agencies decide which type of asset smoothing they’d like to employ, (2) permitting the agencies to make minimal payments on the unfunded liability so the liability would actually increase despite the payments, (3) making overly optimistic actuarial assumptions, (4) not taking action sooner so the unfunded payment wouldn’t end up being more than twice as much as the normal payment.

One final alarming point.

CalPERS recently announced that for any future increases to the unfunded liability, the unfunded payment will have to be calculated based on a 20 year, straight-line amortization. This is a positive development, since the more aggressively participants pay down the unfunded liability, the less likely it is that these pension systems will experience a financial collapse if there is a sustained downturn in investment performance. But it begs the question – why, if only increases to the unfunded liability have to be paid down more aggressively, is the unfunded payment nonetheless predicted to double within the next six years?

CalPERS information officer Tara Gallegos, when presented with this question, offered the following answers:

(1) The discount rate (equal to the projected rate-of-return on invested assets) is being lowered from 7.5% to 7.0% per year. But this lowering is being phased in over five years, so it will not impact the 2018 unfunded contribution. Whenever the return-on-investment assumption is lowered, the amount of the unfunded liability goes up. By 2024, the full impact of the lowered discount rate will have been applied, significantly increasing the required unfunded contribution.

(2) Investment returns were lower than the projected rate of return for the years ending 6/30/2015 (2.4%) and 6/30/2016 (0.6%). Lower than projected actual returns also increases the unfunded liability, and hence the amount of the unfunded payment, but this too is being phased-in over five years. Therefore it will not impact the unfunded payment in 2018, but will be fully impacting the unfunded payment by 2024.

(3) The unfunded payment automatically increases by 3% per year to reflect the payroll growth assumption of 3% per year. This alone accounts, over six years, for 20% of the increase to the unfunded payment. The reason for this is because most current unfunded payments are calculated by cities and counties using the so-called “percent of payroll” method, where payments are structured to increase each year. CalPERS is going to require new unfunded payments to not only be on a 20 year payback schedule, but to use a “level payment” structure which prevents negative amortization in the early years of the term. Unfortunately, up to now, cities and counties were permitted to backload their payments on the unfunded liability, and hence each year have built in increases to their unfunded payments.

The real reason the unfunded liability has gotten so big is because nobody wanted to make conservative estimates. Everybody wanted the normal payments to be as small as possible. The public sector unions wanted to minimize how much their members would have to contribute via withholding. CalPERS and the politicians – both heavily influenced by the public sector unions – wanted to sell generous new pension enhancements to voters, and to do that they needed to make the costs appear minimal.

As a result, taxpayers are now paying 100% of an “unfunded contribution” that is already a bigger payment than the normal contribution, and within a few years is destined, best case, to be twice as much as the normal contribution.

Camouflaged by its conceptual intricacy, the cleverly obfuscated, deliberately underrecognized, creatively undervalued, chronically underpaid, belatedly rising unfunded pension liabilities payments are poised to gobble up every extra dime of California’s tax revenue. And that’s not all…

Sitting on the blistering thin skin of a debt bubble, a housing bubble, and a stock market bubble, amid rising global economic uncertainty, just one bursting jiggle will cause pension fund assets to plummet as unfunded liabilities soar.

And when that happens, cities and counties have to pay these new unfunded balances down on honest, 20 year straight-line terms. They’ll be selling the parks and libraries, starving the seniors, releasing the criminals, firing cops and firefighters, and enacting emergency, confiscatory new taxes.

Whatever it takes to feed additional billions into the maw of the pension systems.

Budget surplus? Dream on.

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Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

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