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Summer 2014
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California

Steven Greenhut
The Secrecy Lobby
Golden State pensioners work to conceal facts about their benefits.
21 August 2013

Last month, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) announced that it would post the names and pension amounts of its retirees. But after the Retired Public Employees Association of California (RPEA) objected, CalPERS quickly pulled back from this pledge. RPEA leaders made what amounted to a novel and troubling argument about why vital public records should remain sealed: releasing pension information, they said, would subject pensioners to criticism, which government retirees simply should not have to bear.

“It’s a good thing CalPERS . . . delayed a plan to post a database online displaying the specifics of all the pensions it administers,” wrote George Linn, RPEA’s public relations director. “Posting unvarnished numbers like that without context would not inform the public, it would only open hardworking middle-class public servants to another round of attacks from Wall Street critics looking for their own political gain.” Linn argued that California taxpayers already have plenty of information about pensions. If they did some research, he went on, they’d learn that the “average public servant in our state retires on just $26,000 a year,” that public-school teachers don’t earn Social Security, and that governor Jerry Brown’s pension-reform plan last year “dramatically reduced government employees’ compensation.”

Linn’s facts are mostly disinformation. For starters, that $26,000 figure is about three times the average pension in the private sector. Further, the data used to compute the average go back decades—before the massive retroactive pension increases of recent years—and include everyone who has worked in the public systems, even if only for a short time. Such a massive data set tends to obscure the particulars of today’s pension formulas, which remain astonishingly generous. Many state firefighters, for example, get the “3 percent at 50” pension benefit that the preponderance of California public-safety workers enjoy—3 percent of their final year’s pay multiplied by the number of years worked, available at age 50. And that’s before applying the common pension-spiking gimmicks that can push the pension well above an individual’s final working salary. As a result, a California firefighter’s average total compensation—salary plus benefits and overtime—is about $175,000 per year.

Linn’s right that most teachers receive lower pensions than many other public employees, and they don’t get Social Security benefits (they opted out years ago). But his claim that Governor Brown’s pension-reform plan will cut back public-employee compensation is fantasy. The pension plan—passed in the waning days of the legislative session to gin up support for a tax increase—applies only to new employees and is far more modest than the governor’s original proposal, which would have created a hybrid defined-benefit and defined-contribution plan for new state workers.

In objecting to the CalPERS data release, Linn and his allies are trying to prevent informed debate. But voters can find the information elsewhere. The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, for example, has been running its $100,000 Pension Club database for several years. “Our $100,000 Club database has had about two-million page views since being put online in 2009 and I haven’t heard of any reports of problems from those retirees on the list,” said CFFR vice president Jack Dean, who also runs pensiontsunami.com. California newspapers regularly publish pension data, too.

Defending its change of heart, CalPERS cited pending legislation that would amend the state’s Public Records Act to wall off pension data from public scrutiny. Pension officials would love to see that happen, of course, but it’s unlikely that such a measure would survive a court challenge. To prove constitutional, argues Terry Francke in the San Jose Mercury News, such legislation “would have to adopt findings demonstrating necessity, when all the proponents’ announced rationales for such secrecy have been argued to the appellate courts and found unpersuasive.” Francke, who serves as general counsel for the First Amendment advocacy group Californians Aware, noted that courts have widely rejected another argument that public pensioners make—that releasing the information would expose seniors to scams.

Indeed, the courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to shut down the release of information from the state’s various pension systems. As U-T San Diego reported in June, “Courts in seven California counties have ruled in favor of releasing pension data for retirees. Retirement systems in three counties appealed these rulings, with no success so far.” The courts recognize that this is bona fide public information that taxpayers need to ensure proper oversight of the state’s unfunded pension liabilities—which can only exist, after all, through taxpayer-backed debt. Yet the secrecy lobby continues to wage this fight based on emotional arguments.

It’s unclear why CalPERS proposed creating its own database in the first place. It’s even more difficult to understand the push for secrecy, given the court record and the availability of similar information elsewhere. California public employees already enjoy myriad privileges, but immunity from criticism would take their special treatment to a whole new level.

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