California pension costs: Facing up to the funding gap

Day of reckoning on pensions
The Little Hoover Commission paints a bleak picture of what’s ahead for state and local governments in California.

Los Angeles Times

The housing bubble and subsequent Wall Street collapse wreaked havoc on the nation’s retirement savings, as many pension funds and 401(k) plans suffered losses of 30% or more. State and local governments are now facing huge unfunded pension liabilities, prompting policymakers to scramble for ways to close the gap without slashing payrolls and services. But a new report from the Little Hoover Commission in Sacramento makes a more troubling point: Many state and local government employees have been promised pensions that the public couldn’t have afforded even had there been no crash.

The commission’s analysis of the problem is hotly disputed by union leaders, who contend that the financial woes of pension funds have been overblown. The commission’s recommendations are equally controversial: Among other things, it urges state lawmakers to roll back the future benefits that current public employees can accrue, raise the retirement age and require employees to cover more pension costs. Given that state courts have rejected previous attempts to alter the pensions already promised to current workers, the commission’s recommendation amounts to a Hail Mary pass. Yet it’s one worth throwing.

…the state has increased its workforce almost 40% since the pension formula was changed and boosted the average state worker’s wages by 50%. Local governments, meanwhile, raised their average salaries by 60%. Much of the growth came in the ranks of police and firefighters, who increased significantly in number and in pay.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with generous pension plans. Pensions, after all, are just a form of compensation that’s paid after retirement, not before. The problem, particularly for local governments, is that the plans are proving to be far costlier than officials anticipated or prepared for. By their own reckoning, the 10 largest public pension systems in California had a $240-billion shortfall in 2010…

Read the entire article at the LA Times.


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