The California Public Employees' Retirement System's union defenders feign shock whenever pension reformers accuse it of "kicking the can down the road" in dealing with the state's mounting pension debt. It's like the scene from Casablanca, when Captain Louis Renault is absolutely shocked to find gambling going on in a gambling house.
CalPERS is never going to state the obvious: "We know these massive, underfunded pensions are not sustainable, but we're going to do everything possible to push the problem into the future and blame everyone else for the problem." But the pension fund's board might as well have said as much after two actions it took at last week's Sacramento meeting.
In one case, it decided to seek a legislative sponsor for a bill that would enable it to shift the blame to local agencies whenever such agencies decide to stop making their payments to the fund and retiree pensions are cut as a result. In the second case, at the urging of cities CalPERS decided to delay a vote on a more actuarially sound means of paying off pension debt—rather than risk a fifth rate hike to local governments, and risk a mutiny among hard-pressed local governments.
Both of these actions maintain the status quo and—you got it—kick the can down the road.
The first action involved the fate of two local agencies that have exited the pension fund because they couldn't afford to keep making their payments. As California Policy Center previously reported, the tiny Sierra Nevada town of Loyalton in 2013 decided to exit the plan, but then was hammered with a $1.66 million termination fee that it couldn't possibly afford. The town's entire annual budget is $1 million and it couldn't even make its $3,500 month payments to the fund.
Furthermore, the East San Gabriel Valley Human Resources Consortium, known as LA Works, shut its doors in 2014, but was likewise penalized by CalPERS for stopping its payments. The end result: Loyalton's four retirees have their pension benefits sliced by 60 percent, and LA Works' retirees lost as much as 63 percent of their pension checks.
In making an example of these small agencies, CalPERS revealed an ugly truth. The pension fund assumes a rate of return of 7 percent to 7.5 percent on its investments. The higher the assumed rate, of course, the less debt on its books. It's in the union-controlled fund's interests to assume the highest-possible rates and maintain the status quo—even if that means that taxpayers ultimately will have to pick up any slack.
When agencies decide to leave the fund, however, CalPERS puts them in a Terminated Agency Pool, where CalPERS assumes a rate of return of a measly 2 percent. Upon departure, these agencies can no longer expect future earnings or taxpayers to pick up the shortfall, so the 2 percent rate is the actual risk-free rate that CalPERS expects from its investments.
The legislation the fund seeks, facetiously referred to as the Anti-Loyalton Bill, would "require a terminating agency to notify past and present employees of its intention to terminate," according to the language approved by the full CalPERS board last Wednesday. Bottom line: CalPERS wants local agencies to provide the bad news to employees and retirees so that they, rather than the massive pension fund, receive the brickbats.
The proposed bill is not a big deal per se, but it's yet another example of how CalPERS is more interested in hiding—rather than dealing with—its pension debt. Basically, this is a public-relations strategy designed to discourage agencies from leaving the fund. It's a way to tighten the golden handcuffs and punish agencies that want to exit the fund.
In reality, if 2 percent is the earning rate that CalPERS can safely expect on its long-term investments, then that should be the rate that it assumes for all of its investments. But lowering the assumed earnings to such a realistic number would cause mass panic, as municipalities would need to come up with dramatically increased payments. They already are struggling with their current payments.
Under that scenario, the state's pension debt would be around $1.3 trillion, according to some estimates—and it would become implausible to push the problem down the road. Even with the current high assumption rates and even after a great year of earnings of 11.2 percent, CalPERS is only funded at a troubling 68 percent. (The California State Teachers' Retirement System had even better returns last year, but is funded only at 64 percent.)
In its second major action last week, "CalPERS delayed action… on the chief actuary's proposal to shorten the period for paying off new pension debt from 30 years to 20 years, a cost-cutting reform that would end the current policy not recommended by professional groups," explained Ed Mendel, on his respected Calpensions blog.
Localities already have faced four major rate increases since 2012. CalPERS assesses the increases to make up for the unfunded liabilities, and recent studies suggest that local governments are slashing public services to come up with the cash. Had CalPERS decided to pay off new debt in a shorter time frame, it would have meant a fifth increase, according to Mendel. He quoted the League of California Cities' official Dane Hutchings with these words of warning: "The well is running dry."
It's a mess. If CalPERS does the right thing, it exacerbates local governments' current problems. But maintaining the status quo will make them worse down the road. As Mendel explained, under CalPERS' current payment approach, "the debt continues to grow for the first nine years" with the payment not even covering the interest. "(T)he payments do not begin reducing the original debt until year 18, more than halfway through the period."
In other words, I have a great 30-year plan for paying off your credit-card debt: You make minimum payments for the next 18 years and then worry about it then. Isn't that the very definition of kicking the can down the road?
It's hard to feel too sorry for these struggling cities. Do you remember when they warned about the impending disaster if the state legislature passed a 1999 bill, promoted by the California Public Employees' Retirement System, that would retroactively raised pensions across the state by 50 percent? Do you remember when city managers angrily resisted union-backed efforts to raise pensions at their city councils? Neither do I.
Unfortunately, their efforts to avoid another rate hike only helps CalPERS do what it likes to do most—remind us that all is well and that the stock market will pay for all the pension promises. It might, but then again it might not. If the market slows, there will be a lot of California officials shocked to find a dead end up ahead.
This column was first published by the California Policy Center.