LAO recommends sweeping state pension reform

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, saying current public pension systems are “too expensive and inflexible,“ is recommending two new pension models for future hires that shift some risk to workers and lower government debt.

A new “cost sharing” plan would increase contributions from both employees and employers when a pension fund needs more money due to investment shortfalls or other reasons.

Currently, annual pension contributions from employees are generally fixed by law. So it’s the government employer, and the taxpayer, that must cover the increased cost when pension funds are hit by something like the stock market crash two years ago.

The other model is a “hybrid” combining a pension system that provides lower benefits with a 401(k)-style individual investment plan, now increasingly common in the private sector.

The report issued by the analyst yesterday said the Legislature could approve a cost-sharing or hybrid plan for the California Public Employees Retirement System, the California State Retirement System and local government pension systems.

For the more independent University of California Retirement Plan, the analyst said the state could make state contributions “contingent” on comparable changes by the UC system.

For retiree health care promised state workers, the analyst recommended legislation allowing more flexibility for future employees. The state retiree health care cost, $1.4 billion this fiscal year, is expected to be $1.6 billion next year.

But an additional $1 billion or more would be needed to begin paying for the retiree health care promised current state workers, an “unfunded liability” estimated to be about $50 billion over the next 30 years.

The analyst recommended that the state begin paying the “normal” or full cost of retiree health care by 2020, covering not only bills during the current year but setting aside enough money to cover retiree health care promised in the future as well.

“Existing benefits of our pensions systems are very generous,” Jason Sisney of the analyst’s office said in a video report. “Compared to other states Californians have typically given their public employees richer retirement benefits in recent years.

“And even after some recent changes at the state level to reduce benefits for future employees those benefits are often much more generous than the retirement benefits in the private sector.

“In the private sector defined benefit pensions and retiree health benefits — still the norm in California government — are increasingly nonexistent. A key question that we think needs to be asked is this:

“Can the substantial disparity between public- and private-sector benefits be sustained much longer? We think that it probably cannot. But we do think there are reasonable options to improve California’s public employee retirement systems.”

A chart in the slide show version of the analyst’s report says state pension costs, about $1.4 billion in 1999, have soared to about $6 billion now for CalPERS, CalSTRS and retiree health.

The retirement costs were about 2 percent of the state general fund around 2000 and are currently about 7 percent. The amount would be even higher if future costs were fully funded.

Among the problems with the current retirement systems, said the analyst, is a tendency to pass along costs to future generations, instead of paying for all of the retirement benefits promised current workers.

The analyst said the “unfunded liability” of the retirement systems is a major contributor to increasing costs. But the report also said the “often huge” debt may not be as alarming as some think.

CalPERS and other retirement systems have long-term earnings averaging more than 7 percent, said the analyst, and recent analyses based on earnings of 3 or 4 percent in the future may “substantially” overstate the debt.

It’s a reference to a widely reported study by Stanford graduate students last year that said the pre-crash shortfall of the three state pension funds was more than $500 billion, not the $55 billion reported at the time.

In addition to the two new system models, the “options for the future” recommended by the analyst include an end to “retroactive” benefit increases and contribution “holidays.”

When a booming stock market boosted investment earnings a decade ago, both CalPERS and CalSTRS gave retirees an increase in their pensions of 1 to 6 percent, depending on the amount of time they had been retired.

During the same period CalPERS dropped the annual state contribution from $1.2 billion all the way down to $150 million. As the analyst noted, CalPERS later had to increase the state contribution “just when governments faced their own budget problems.”

The analyst also called for greater “clarity about employer obligations” and the need from the moment an employee is hired “to be crystal clear about which retirement benefits can be modified and which cannot.”

As in the analyst’s report, pension changes are usually recommended for future hires because benefits promised current workers are regarded as “vested rights,” protected under contract law by a series of court decisions.

But some attorneys argue that declaring a fiscal emergency would allow the pensions earned by current workers in the future to be lowered, while pensions they have already earned would not be cut.

The analyst recommended that state funding for CalSTRS be phased out, leaving school districts and teachers to provide all of the money. But the state “probably will need to make payments for many years” to retire the existing debt.

A new staff report to the CalSTRS board this week said an additional $3.8 billion a year, about 14 percent of teacher pay, would be needed to fully fund the system over the next three decades.

The current CalSTRS contributions: teachers 8 percent of pay, school districts and other employers 8.25 percent, and the state 2 percent. The state contributes another 2.5 percent of pay to a separate inflation-protection plan for retirees.

The total state CalSTRS contribution, $1.257 billion this year, is expected to increase to $1.35 billion in the new fiscal year beginning in July, according to the state finance department.

The report to the CalSTRS board said a legal anlysis concluded that the teacher contribution cannot be raised without providing another benefit of equal value.

The report assumes that the increased contribution needed to close the gap, probably phased in over more than a decade, would come entirely from the school districts and other employers, not teachers or the state.

Because contributions from the state general fund are based on two-year-old salaries, said the report, an increase of one percent of pay would only generate a 0.922 increase — not the full one percent yielded by an employer increase.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Posted 11 Feb 11

37 Responses to “LAO recommends sweeping state pension reform”

  1. Bruce Ross Says:

    Thanks for the update. I got an e-mail about the report … but video? Can’t these guys type?

  2. Dr. Mark H. Shapiro Says:

    “Sweeping” state pension reforms are not needed. All that really is needed are common-sense adjustments to the pension formulas. Return the retirement age for public safety employees to receive full pensions to 55. Adjust the formulas for other employees so that they are sound from an actuarial standpoint — this will entail adjusting the retirement age periodically to reflect changes in longevity, adjusting the percentage that retirees receive, and making sure that is based on the highest three years of salary would solve most of the problems. The remainder can be handled by adjusting the employee contribution.

  3. Rex The Wonder Dog! Says:

    “Sweeping” state pension reforms are not needed. All that really is needed are common-sense adjustments to the pension formulas.
    Trough Feeder, put the pipe down, your propagonda lines are over, and change is coming.

    Common sense chanes would be to start making gov employes work until age 67 like SS does, instea dof age 50 or 55.

  4. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    “So it’s the government employer, and the taxpayer, that must cover the increased cost when pension funds are hit by something like the stock market crash two years ago.”

    And of course it was the government employer, and the taxpayer who paid little or nothing of their required contribution between the late 1990’s and early 2000’s and now have to make up for their foolish planning, brought to you by politicians who will not be around when the bill comes due. Amazing!

  5. SeeSaw Says:

    RWD, I was 72 when I retired. I think most anybody who is reasonably healthy would love to keep working until age 67. The age at retirement is not the only thing to consider–the amount of the reitirement is also important. I could have retired at age 50 with 20% of my income at that time–I would be destitute now, if I had done that. Most miscellaneous workers are 60 and over by the time of retirement. The idea with retirement ages being low is to have turnover in the agencies, where new hires can bring new blood to the policies and procedures. There needs to be jobs available for young people getting into the job market. When people who have had long careers move on, that turnover benefits the young. I supervised employees who had parents that were younger than I.

    CalPERS is not SS. Where is it written anywhere that CalPERS and other DB pension plans must operate under the same guidlines as SS? The sustainability of the Plan must be worked out by the principals, the Plan and its actuaries, the member agencies, and the Legislature.

  6. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    “The other model is a “hybrid” combining a pension system that provides lower benefits with a 401(k)-style individual investment plan, now increasingly common in the private sector.”

    Nonsense. The 401K is the common retirement in the private sector. The retirement where you cannot ever retire.

    Defined benefit retirements are the last bastion of the middle class. Which the upper class wish to destroy. For their benefit. Wake up! They want to destroy you and make you work until you drop dead while they take huge profits from you and live in luxury.

  7. SeeSaw Says:

    CSC, I will add that, in addition to the upper class, our own demographic cohorts, who do not have the DB plans, are allowing themselves to be pawns in the effort to reduce all citizens, except the rich, to poverty status. If the DB plans are not destroyed. they will all have a future chance to get on board. I hope they will wake up soon, before they realize they are on the wrong side.

  8. john moore Says:

    Defined benefit plan reforms are “pretend” reforms. Pretend that Calpers can make up the deficits. Pretend that unfunded deficits don’t grow at the actuarial investment rate of 7.75% per year. Pretend that the Stanford study,Warren Buffett,Geo. Soros and Ron Seeling(former Calpers Chief Actuary)are all wet. Maybe the “Great Pumpkin” will help. Get real. A state of financial emergency exists in every 3@50 city and county in California. Reform requires a lid on both contributions and liability. Give each employee 10% of salary,let them contribute up to 10% of salary tax deductible, and let each employee join a federal pension plan,invest the 20% annual contribution and take responsibility for it.

  9. SeeSaw Says:

    John, CalPERS says that the Stanford Study is hogwash. CalPERS is the entity I choose to believe. Ron Seeling said that if we don’t do something, the program would be unsustainable. He was first in line to do something–he developed the CalPERS smoothing system. He is now retired. Since all this hoopla about Mr. Seeling started three years ago when he made his famous statement at some kind of conference breakfast, it is time to put it that saga to bed. We got the message, we are working on it–end of story. John, I predict that PG will still be a member of CalPERS long after you have left this planet.

  10. tough love Says:

    Cuts for new employees do nothing … test the water and cut future benefits for CURRENT employees.

    It’s justified, and the cost of fighting it is minimal compared to the payback if won … $100-$200 Billion , and staying solvent.

    Or, we ca do nothing (noting that cuts only for new employees is tantamount to doing nothing for the next 20 years) and become insolvent probably within the next 5 years.

  11. tough love Says:

    Charles, how comes you are always willing to address the FUNDING side, but never want to admit to and address the need to reduce public sector BENEFITS, which are 2, 4, even 6 times higher than for comparably paid Private sector workers?

  12. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    I am sure this statement will be around longer than some persons. Calpers earned 7.79% from 1900 to 2010. Their % goal was 7.75%. They exceeded the goal. Will they exceed it again? I don’t know. And neither do you. Maybe and maybe not. Only an imbecile will say they will or will not. Return on investment is a guess. However Calpers guesses have been fairly accurate for decades. The Stanford pupils who want to use 4.1% Treasury Bill returns on assets will be tossed out of any money making company immediately. They would cause their company immediate bankruptcy.

  13. tough love Says:

    Quoting Charles Sainte Claire …

    “Defined benefit retirements are the last bastion of the middle class. Which the upper class wish to destroy. For their benefit. Wake up! They want to destroy you and make you work until you drop dead while they take huge profits from you and live in luxury.”

    No Charles, traditional Defined Benefit Plans are the last bastion of the 15% of of workers who are PUBLIC SERVANTS who are oh-so-willing to impoverish the other 85% (Private Sector taxpayers) who do not have such generous pensions yet are forced to pay for the excesses granted the Public Sector workers … all due to the Public Sector Union’s collusion with self-serving, money grubbing politicians.

  14. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    Tough Love

    The Private sector has destroyed your retirement benefits. The Public sector did not take anything from you. Think again. When did public sector employees take anything from you? Never. Private enterprise raped you. Wake up! We had nothing to do with it. Your greedy employers did it. You are f*cked and refuse to admit it. You will never admit it is true. You bosses in their greed took you to the cleaners.

  15. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    Answer dummy. If you can. Your employers stuffed it you l

  16. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    Still waiting TL. The greedy private sector stole your retirement. They talked you into 401Ks. They make huge amounts of money supposedly taking care of them and then made more money watching them tank. Wall Street raped you, not government employees.

  17. john moore Says:

    See-Saw: You proved Seelings case,plus you mis-quote him(pretend again) Calpers is your Easter Bunny. Pretend all you want. The numbers are overwhelming. Failure is here. The question is which generation will pay for it. In a DB plan,when it loses one-third,it must then gain by fifty-per cent + the loss from lag time,to get back to even. The market just doubled and Calpers earned 12.2%,including the 7.75% investment rate. So it gained 4.45% when it needed to gain 50% plus. Only a bubble could make Calpers look ok.,until the bubble bursts. I wish you were right,but if you stick with the Calpers 3@50 plan,the pensions of 2@50 etc. retirees will soon be at risk. It’s a dangerous game to play,especially with Calpers investing the money. Personally, I’m unaffected. I had my own plan and avoided the catastrophes that Calpers always walks into(tech bubble,housing bubble,sub-prime mess) Investors like Calpers have become pigeons for investment advisors. Do you understand the extent to which 3@50 cities and counties are in the hole after a near doubling of the market? Seeling did,and said so and he is gone. By the way “smoothing” is a sissy political act to create bigger deficits by charging cities and counties lower rates than actuarially required to fund benefits. The “pretend” reformists just want to get theirs before they die. To heck with the grandkids. By the way,PG is better off than any 3@50 city,because it has true pension reform on the lines of my earlier(above) message. (10% employer,10% employee) . Do the numbers,that plan has MORE value than a Calpers plan using the same assumptions,and the employers have no additional liability.

  18. tough love Says:

    Charles Sainte Claire Says:
    February 12, 2011 at 6:44 am

    Tough Love

    The Private sector has destroyed your retirement benefits. The Public sector did not take anything from you. Think again. When did public sector employees take anything from you? Never. Private enterprise raped you. Wake up! We had nothing to do with it. Your greedy employers did it. You are f*cked and refuse to admit it. You will never admit it is true. You bosses in their greed took you to the cleaners

    Charles, but WE (the Private Sector taxpayers) still pay for 80-90% of YOUR excessive pensions.

    So who is raping who?

  19. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    Tough Love

    You pay about 19%. You paid 18% in 1969. You paid nothing in 2000. And you know it. A deal is a deal. I am hero and deserve.

  20. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    The comment I just made is date stamped 8 hours into the future. That is in England at Greenwich. Huh?

  21. SeeSaw Says:

    John, If you think I misquoted Seeling you are one of the kool-aid drinkers who did not read the rest of his statement. Of course you probably didn’t, because the editorial writers pruposely cut if off, otherwise there would have been no uproar. If you think I misquoted, then go find his original statement and read the last part, where he said, “Unless we do something”. He put in the smoothing plan–an adjustment to help start the recovery. He is retired now–probably enjoying every penny of his sustainable CalPERS pension.

    My City amended its 3% at 50 Plan six years ago. I concentrate my worries on my own City. Perhaps you should start enjoying life in PG and quit doing that “Chicken Little” act. Our forefathers fought these battles before we came along, and there will be others after us.

  22. john moore Says:

    The updated Calpers rate are26.90% of salary for Safety and 11.20% for Misc. On average each city/county deficit will increase 3-4 times the cost of the increase per yr. Put another way,the increase is unrealistically low and city/county deficits will compound and double every 9.3 years(Like a Bell city managers’ salary) This is precisely what Ron Seeling described as leading to 50% of payroll rates forever(and still running deficits).For cities remaining in Calpers,there is a Casino in your future,probably in your library.

  23. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    John Moore

    Calpers has a 70 year track record.

    In two or three years this will be history.

    2008 until now is a snapshot in finances.

    The private sector lost a great deal due to Wall Street and their thieving ways.

    And the Government bailed them out.

    Take a look around and smell the coffee.

    You should know who your enemy really is.

  24. tough love Says:

    Referring the CalERS former chief actuary Ron Seeling, SeeSaw said …”He put in the smoothing plan–an adjustment to help start the recovery.”

    You clearly have no idea what “smoothing” is. Talking as though you do, only makes you look foolish.

    “Smoothing” means that ACTUAL gains or losses in a given year are not fully reflected in that one year but brought in the income statement over a predetermined number of years. This is done because equity returns are somewhat predictable over multi-year periods, but can fluctuate considerably from year to year. Smoothing in effect insulates the income statement from potentially wide swings from year to year…. that usually balance out over longer time periods.

    As an example, in 2008 CalPERS likely lost about 30% of is assets. If the smoothing period were 10 years, only 3% of those losses would have been reflected in 2008, with and another 3% going into a pot to be reflected in each of the next 9 year’s income statements.

    Conversely, the better than average gains of 2010 will not get fully reflected in 2010, but over 10 years (again assuming the smoothing period is 10 years)

    Smoothing has a legitimate purpose (when not abused … such as by lengthening the smoothing period after a particularly bad year in the stock market), but has absolutely nothing to do with ….being an “adjustment to help start the recovery”.

    Hope you learned something.

  25. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    Sorry there. I know exactly what smoothing is. It is a way of taking points on a graph and taking a means, such as three years or ten years and smoothing the line out. I am an engineer. You are an idiot. So sorry! You are the one who does not know what he is saying.

    But that hardly prevents you from posting does it?

  26. john moore Says:

    I agree Calpers had a great record for many decades. But,3@50 with retroactivity changed everything.Since then,every 3@50 plan is irrevocably under water. And if a City issued pension bonds after the tech crash they are really hurting. They anted up to save a point and Calpers lost much of the ante too. Cities that issued pension bonds are down as much as the equivalent of 50% of total plan assets if you count the cost of the bonds. Here in Pacific Grove we had old fashioned corruption in establishing 3@50(no public hearing,no actuary report except to the city manager,hidden on the Agenda calendar,false certification that was obvious to Calpers and violation of the constitutional debt limit). PG was buried in 2@50 when via corruption it was defrauded into 3@50 with retroactivity. Fortunately,Pacific Grove also has some determined citizens(led by one with a Phd in Math from CalTech) who very carefully got true pension reform enacted. The city will still be 50 million down,but at least it will stop the 7.75% per year compounding of the deficit. PG will possibly end up with a mostly volunteer police and fire dept.,which would save 9 million per year. It has almost no crime,but fires are a problem;but,if you can’t afford it,back to volunteer for a few years.PG will get thru this.It will not stick its’ children and grand-children with the results of a fraud practiced by Calpers to get 3@50 without a vote of the people. And about collective bargaining. Here in Monterey county there is no bargaining,only I’m entitled. City Managers act as bargaining agents and bury the cities in debts so enormous that all services,except Safety and top management are cut to the core.However,it seems clear that public employees who have retired,or,will retire in a few years will be able to stretch out payments long enough to gain huge payments before they die. That’s what smoothing of rates(as opposed to paying up)is all about. When the investment rate is 7.75% there is no room to smooth. It is difficult enough just to attain the 7.75%. And with the stock market fully recovered??

  27. tough love Says:

    Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    Sorry there. I know exactly what smoothing is. It is a way of taking points on a graph and taking a means, such as three years or ten years and smoothing the line out. I am an engineer. You are an idiot. So sorry! You are the one who does not know what he is saying.

    But that hardly prevents you from posting does it?

    Charles … you grow as a fool by the minute…

    FIRST, I was responding to a comment SeeSaw made, not YOU. DO you have a guilty conscience?

    SECOND, “smoothing” in reference to pension plan funding is “actuarial smoothing” (google it, dope), and has noting to with mathematical graduation techniques (of which I also happen to know more than you ever did).

    Get a life !

  28. SeeSaw Says:

    The smoothing was done to make it easier for entities to keep up with their liabilities. That’s really all I need to know. I also trust that CSC made good highways–I don’t need to know every detail of how he did it.

  29. tough love Says:

    Yes SeeSaw, that’s correct, by pushing the 2008 looses (to be recognized and reflected as losses in later years) it DOES lower the official 2008 liability, therefore requiring a lower contribution in 2009 …. but of course the real loses haven’t really gone away…. they just reappear year-after-year for the duration of the smoothing period….INCREASING the the contribution requirement in those years from what it would have otherwise been.

    Both losses and gains can be spread over a number of years, but obviously at some point all of it needs to be recognized in income.

  30. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    I am collecting my money. 90 grand a year. Plus SS next year. And Government paid health care. Until I die. Or my wife dies next. I planned on that since 1969. Plus $2000,400per year SS. For a total of $9,2000,400 per month. And about $1450 dollars of health insurance on top of that. And dental and vision insurance on top of that. And a life insurance policy. I got that for 40 years worth of work. And I deserve it.

  31. tough love Says:

    Quoting charles …”Plus $2000,400per year SS. For a total of $9,2000,400 per month. ”

    WOW…. gov’t work sure pays well !

    Now what bridges did you work on ….. I’m gonna keep my distance !

  32. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    I worked on a lot of them. And they are all standing. My number is C35404. Look it up. I got it in 1982. Possibly before you were born. Look here.$LCEV2.ActionQuery

    Oh that other guy is my brother. He and I are both retired engineers. With close to six figures. Just under. We worked for it and we got it. I will be going to Maui in April. Have fun.

    I am sure you deserve it.

    And spending your money. Thanks.

  33. tough love Says:


    I suggest the Alex Air 2-G Delux East Maui Helicopter tour…. terriffic view from the air … did it with the wife a few moths ago. Not cheap though, about $300 PP with the current fuel surcharge .

  34. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    Did that about 4 years ago. Once was enough although once was good. Own timeshare in Maui at Ka’anapali. Go there twice a year. Own another one on Kauii.

  35. Question Everything Says:

    I understand the class warfare bit and the unsustainability of the status quo. I spent over a decade in the private sector and know all-to-well of the abuse that major corporations wield in the name of capitalism and greed. The ‘special interests’ exist in private sector, and they are called shareholders. The corporation’s duty is to provide a good return on their shareholders’ investment – at whatever cost necessary. This could (and often) mean American jobs are sent overseas to cheaper, impoverished countries at pennies on the dollar, where benefits and unions and laws don’t hinder the obscene amounts of money that can be raked in.

    I work in a special fund unit, which takes 0% from the general fund that has been the source of scourge for decades. Please note that State employees are ALSO State taxpayers, so blithering about ‘that’s my money!’ is an assinine argument. My taxes do not fund my unit, however, nor do Government monies of any kind. I am outraged at the amounts that are being spent on retirement, but I can’t blame the retirees for this. When you spend most of your life in service to the public, I certainly believe that you deserve to take it easy for the last decade or two of your life. Being from the private sector, I was quite taken aback by the ‘automatic’ retirement deduction that was/is taken from my paycheck every month.

    People constantly claim that State employees make much more than private sector employees. Well, maybe on paper over the entire span of our lives, sure, but even that’s hard to fathom. I was expecting a pay raise when I came to the State because the LISTED salary was $300 a month more than my private sector salary. After the increased medical (triple the cost of what I paid in private sector for the same level of care), my pay raise was gone. I thought, “Okay, just consider that your office is closer to your home and you will eventually have the ability to retire. Try to stay positive and view it as an investment.” Then the furloughs went into effect (and having that harm someone in a special fund unit, untied to the budgeting debacle, is a delightfully unexpected kick to the gonads), and I lost my car and nearly my home. I had to cash out the miniscule pension and 401k that I had built up in the private sector just to get by.

    There is a factor that no one likes to look at or acknowledge – the ‘elephant in the room,’ if you will. That is the obscene cost of ‘living’ for every American – not just Californians. And by ‘living,’ I mean healthcare. There is something fundamentally wrong with an organization that can deny benefits to someone who has paid into those benefits, and handsomely at that. I cover 2 people on my insurance – that is it – and my premium is $1,200 per month. Does that not seem RIDICULOUS to ANYONE ELSE?!?!? That is a mortgage payment on a VERY MODEST small home, post-crash, for crying out loud! And the State is taking a hit of $850 a month, while I pay the remaining $350. But yet, there is no ‘watchdog’ committee to SEE this abuse of funds?!?! THIS IS MY FRUSTRATION. WHY ISN’T ANYONE DOING ANYTHING INTERNALLY (I know why they don’t externally. The healthcare industry has a stranglehold-pun intended-on the consumers in this country, and their tentacles reach DEEP into the decision-makers’ pockets. No one will touch them).

    To me, this is greed at its most-high.


  36. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    California State Employees do okay. I was one for 40 years. I never earned huge amounts of money per hour, but the work was steady and dependable. Oh, of course not when I was laid off for a year and a half in 1976. Still, I liked it. I was not a complainer, my work was satisfying, I had the respect of my community, (yes indeed, I lived in a small mountain community), and worked a lot on projects fairly near my home. When I wasn’t working 200 miles away and had to drive on my own time to get there.
    And now I am retired on a decent income with health benefits. Thanks.

  37. Charles Sainte Claire Says:

    The LAO has not been non-partisan for about a decade.

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