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Eye on the News

Steven Greenhut
Plundering California
Public-sector unions have brought the state to its knees.
23 November 2009

The economy is struggling, the unemployment rate is high, and many Americans are struggling to pay the bills, but one class of Americans is doing quite well: government workers. Their pay levels are soaring, they enjoy unmatched benefits, and they remain largely immune from layoffs, except for some overly publicized cutbacks around the margins. To make matters worse, government employees—thanks largely to the power of their unions—have carved out special protections that exempt them from many of the rules that other working Americans must live by. California has been on the cutting edge of this dangerous trend, which has essentially turned government employees into a special class of citizens.

When I recently appeared on Glenn Beck’s TV show to discuss California’s dreadful fiscal situation, I mentioned that in Orange County, where I had been a columnist for the Orange County Register, the average pay and benefits package for firefighters was $175,000 per year. After the show, I heard from viewers who couldn’t believe the figure, but it’s true. Firefighters, like all public-safety officials in California, also receive a gold-plated retirement plan: a defined-benefit annual pension that offers 90 percent or more of the worker’s final year’s pay, guaranteed for the rest of his life (and the life of his spouse).

Government employees use various scams to boost their already generous benefits, which include fully paid health care and cost-of-living adjustments. The Sacramento Bee coined the term “chief’s disease,” for example, to refer to the 82 percent (in 2002) of chief’s-level employees at the California Highway Patrol who discovered a disabling injury about one year before retiring. That provides an extra year off work, with pay, and shields 50 percent of their final retirement pay from taxes. Most of these disabilities stem from back pain, knee pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and the like—not from taking bullets from bad guys. The disability numbers soared after CHP disbanded its fraud unit.

As I document in my new book, Plunder!, government employees of all stripes have manipulated the system to spike their pensions. Because California bases pensions for employees on their final year’s salary, some workers move to other jurisdictions for just that final year to increase their pay and thus the pension. Even government employees convicted of on-the-job crimes continue to collect benefits. Municipalities have adopted Defined Retirement Option Plans, or DROPs, in which the employee earns his salary and his full defined-benefit retirement pay at the same time, with the retirement pay going into an account payable upon actual retirement. And as average Americans work longer to sustain themselves, public employees can retire in their early fifties with their plush benefits.

The old deal seemed fair: public employees would earn lower salaries than Americans working in the private sector, but would receive a somewhat better retirement and more days off. Now, public employees get higher average pay, far higher benefits, and many more days off and other fringe benefits. They have also obtained greatly reduced work schedules, thus limiting public services even as pay and benefits shoot ever higher. The new deal is starting to raise eyebrows, thanks to efforts by groups such as the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which publishes the $100,000 Club, a list of thousands of California government retirees with six-figure, taxpayer-guaranteed incomes. But even in these tough times, public employees continue to press city councils for retroactive pension increases, which amount to gifts of public funds for past services. Officials fear the clout that these unions, especially police and fire unions, wield on Election Day.

The story doesn’t end with the imbalance in pay and benefits. Government workers also enjoy absurd protections. The Los Angeles Times did a recent series about the city’s public school district, which doesn’t even try to fire incompetent teachers and is seldom able to get rid of those credibly accused of misconduct or abuse. Misbehaving teachers are sometimes kept from teaching, but they may spend years, even a decade, getting paid while they fight attempts to fire them. A state law referred to as the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, along with excessive privacy restrictions, likewise makes it nearly impossible to fire police officers who abuse their authority.

The media have finally started to take notice, largely because of some impossible-to-ignore financial excesses, particularly the tens of billions of dollars in “unfunded liabilities”—that is, future debt—run up by politicians more interested in pleasing union officials than in looking after the public’s finances. News reports have also focused on scandals at CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which has faced record losses after making risky leveraged investments in bizarre real-estate deals. (The government pension system encourages such risky behavior: with defined-benefit systems, union members stand to gain if the investments go well, while taxpayers shoulder the burden if they don’t.) Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported on a politically connected insider who received $53 million in finder’s fees from CalPERS, raising questions of pay-to-play deals.

But the real scandal is a two-tier society where government workers enjoy benefits far in excess of those for whom they supposedly work. It’s past time to start cleaning up the mess by reforming retirement systems and limiting the public unions’ power. If we don’t, California’s financial problems will become insurmountable.

Steven Greenhut is the author of Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives And Bankrupting The Nation. He is the director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center in Sacramento and was a longtime columnist for the Orange County Register in Santa Ana.

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