California’s Public Employee Pension Problem

I have not been following the details of California’s budget problems all that closely, but I was struck by the following passages in a Steven Greenhut op-ed from the WSJ:

Approximately 85% of the state’s 235,000 employees (not including higher education employees) are unionized. As the governor noted during his $83 billion budget roll-out, over the past decade pension costs for public employees increased 2,000%. State revenues increased only 24% over the same period. A Schwarzenegger adviser wrote in the San Jose Mercury News in the past few days that, “This year alone, $3 billion was diverted to pension costs from other programs.” There are now more than 15,000 government retirees statewide who receive pensions that exceed $100,000 a year, according to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.

Many of these retirees are former police officers, firefighters, and prison guards who can retire at age 50 with a pension that equals 90% of their final year’s pay. The pensions for these (and all other retirees) increase each year with inflation and are guaranteed by taxpayers forever—regardless of what happens in the economy or whether the state’s pensions funds have been fully funded (which they haven’t been).

As I said, I have not been following the broader issue all that closely, so I do not know what (if any) relevant details about public employee pensions Greenhut is omitting, but the facts above would suggest that pensions are a major obstacle to resolving California’s budget problems.

Greenhut also quotes San Francisco’s former mayor, Willie Brown, on the broader issue.

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a well-known liberal voice, recently wrote this in the San Francisco Chronicle: “The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians—pushed by our friends in labor—gradually expanded pay and benefits . . . while keeping the job protections and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages. . . . [A]t some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact.”