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Tuesday, June 22, 2004
Long Beach Press-Telegram 6-22-04
Opinion: California's outrageous public pensions
The Legislature's spineless handling of a foolish law designating 3,200 state workers who are not cops as public safety workers so they can get fat benefits reminds us that voters don't control Sacramento. The groaning New Delhi-like bureaucracy does.
Legislators spent several days trying to avoid taking a stand on Senate Bill 9 by Sen. Tom McClintock of Thousand Oaks, which would overturn the silly designation of milk inspectors, billboard inspectors and others as public safety workers and thus save more than $100 million over several years. It's a struggle over a rotten system created with good intentions.
Today, the vast majority of state workers can retire at age 55 with state pensions, health and dental benefits, plus Social Security. These folks are at the height of their expertise, yet retire a full 10 years before most taxpayers, who foot much of the bill.
Decades ago, notes former Los Angeles City Fire Commissioner David Fleming, government workers got pensions because the state and city couldn't afford salaries commensurate with the private world. But public unions, with their phalanxes of lobbyists, became shakedown artists.
In the 1970s, salaries of California state employees caught up to salaries of Californians, and in some years zoomed by. According to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), in 2002 the average salary of state and private workers both hovered near $45,000.
Today, says H.D. Palmer, of the state Department of Finance, the average state worker earns $50,000 and gets $15,000 in benefits. And what a difference in benefits. Unlike taxpayers, state workers are next to impossible to fire and it takes many months to lay off a state worker, says McClintock.
State workers do not have to build up a 401k. Instead, although they pay modestly into a pension, taxpayers increasingly pay a fat share of state workers' pensions.
Laying off 10 percent of California's 320,000 or so workers would bring $2 billion in savings, but would be fought like World War III. Instead, Palmer says Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked the Legislature to delay— not reverse, merely delay — a fat raise due to state workers very soon.
But the Legislature sweats with fear. Many owe their jobs to public unions who underwrote their campaigns. That's why, in 1999, Davis signed one of the worst laws in California history. Senate Bill 400 created stunning benefits that state officials say will cost $10 billion over 20 years.
Even during the 1990s recession, state workers won big raises. By 1995, the BEA says, the average salary of a state worker was $4,318 higher than that of an average Californian. Add in their pensions and the disparity was far greater.
Gov. Pete Wilson refused to grant further raises. But in 1999, newly elected labor Democrats promised they would undo Wilson's chintzy ways. Sen. Deborah Ortiz of Sacramento vowed not to accept a raise herself until state workers got them. She spoke publicly about Senate Bill 400 for less than one minute, and it was promptly approved.
The 1999 bill misuses early retirement for cops, firefighters and others who must be at the height of physical fitness, and thus are encouraged to retire at 50 or 55. Instead, virtually all state workers get retirement at 55. Moreover, the metastasizing public safety category got fatter retirement checks, and CHP officers were allowed to retire at 50 with 90 percent of pay.
Today, its a big, costly mess. Some 60 percent of workers in management posts now qualify to retire. Imagine if these highly educated, successful middle-aged folks all leave. As noted in the Sacramento Bee, one in 20 state workers used to qualify as a public safety worker and get early retirement. Now, one in three is a public safety worker. What balderdash.
In 2002, state Sen. John Burton added the 3,200 billboard inspectors and others to the public safety category. Why not add pencil-pushers who handle public complaints, thus preventing us all from wringing somebody's neck?
Last year, Sen. Joseph Dunn of Santa Ana, who styles himself as the next California attorney general, pushed Senate Bill 100, a ridiculous plan to give cops 100 percent of their salary at retirement. It failed to become law.
We have a nasty ethics problem unfolding here, and the Fair Political Practices Commission is toothless. Public unions should not be able to elect the very people they get raises from. California should stop the flow of money from public unions to legislators, period.
State Assemblyman Paul Koretz of West Hollywood, who talks like a union honcho, recently whined that if 3,200 public safety workers lose their fake designation, what's to stop us from throwing out every contract with state employees?
Like the joke about piles of lawyers on the bottom of the ocean, I'd call that a good start.
Jill Stewart is a California TV, radio and print political commentator
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