Joshua Rauh: Public Pensions are an economic time bomb, and young people will be at the epicenter of the blast

24 Nov

Bob sent a link to a really interesting video that explains the “pension time bomb” in language the average person can understand.

https://www.prageru.com/video/public-pensions-an-economic-time-bomb/

Josuah Rauh is a professor of finance at Stanford School of Business, Director of Research for the Hoover Institute, and has written extensively on the nationwide pension problem. I love his no-nonsense style. This problem is really simple.

Rauh doesn’t mince words.  “I want to talk about three words that should scare the heck out of you, especially if you’re young. PUBLIC PENSION LIABILITIES”

He’s absolutely right, young people will be left holding the bag.  To quote Chico City Manager Mark Orme and Assistant Manager Chris Constantin, this city has “kicked the can down the road” on infrastructure maintenance  for many years. What neither man mentions is that the city has continued to pay increasing salaries and benefits for city management. They both lie through their teeth, claiming to have “stopped the bleeding…” performed “a miracle”. In truth they have both taken very generous pay raises and have already added a 401k plan to their already generous pension packages. More about that later.

So, our kids will get stuck with failing infrastructure and the billions in taxes it will take to fix it. Not to mention, paying for generations of public workers, like Orme and Constantin,  allowed to retire at age 50 – 55 with well over $100,000/year in pension.

Unfortunately, this is a message that mostly falls on deaf ears. Rauh continues, “that’s why all of this is so scary – no one is paying attention.” Well, in defense of the average citizen – myself – I’ll say, it’s been made complicated on purpose – go to a meeting, and listen to staff make it as convoluted as possible. 

Rauh puts it in simple language, as if he is explaining this to someone from another planet, who has never heard of such a ludicrous policy. “What is a public pension liability,” he asks rhetorically. “A guaranteed lifetime payment to somebody after they retire.” That seems simple enough, but the important word here is “guaranteed“.

Years ago,  private sector workers got pensions, but private businesses were not able to keep up with the costs associated, and either dropped their pensions plans for 401K’s or went under. Right now, once giant media conglomerate McClatchy (which formerly owned newspapers and tv stations all over the state), is going under due to unfunded pension liabilities. 

McClatchy’s financial distress has the company exploring options — including a sale

 

But public workers will not cooperate, they demand to keep their guaranteed pensions.  According to public employee unions,  no matter how the economy tanks, they get their money. While CalPERS promised to fund these outrageous pensions via investments in the stock market, they have failed miserable, and now they are laying the bag at our feet. 

Rauh continues, “They are eating state and city budgets alive… more than 62,000 retired public employees are receiving pensions of over $100,000/year…  Currently many cities are paying for multiple public departments at the same time, the department that’s working now, and (due to people living longer) a generation of two of public employees.” Estimates of the state’s total unfunded pension liability go over $200 trillion. 

The problem, he says, is “a corrupt merry go round  – public employee unions give donations to candidates who are then responsible for negotiating how much of your money  goes  to public sector workers“. In Chico the biggest donors in every local election are the employee unions, usually led by Chico Police Officers Association. 

The other problem is, “they hide the payments that are  due down the road.” Here in Chico, you have to know the right question to ask, in the proper vernacular, or they just ignore you. You have to watch agendas and read onerous reports printed in the smallest typeset available, sideways on the page. 

You have to be forward with these people.  Even when Dave Howell corrected CARD General Manager about their pension deficit, Willmann overstated employee contribution figures at the informational meetings. She corrected herself in an email when I questioned her about it later, after she’d already been misinforming people for weeks. She made no attempt to correct herself publicly, even after I wrote a letter to the paper about it. 

Rauh points out same. “How do they get away with this? They use a time tested political strategy – they lie.

The first, big lie was that they could pay for these increasingly generous pensions, “not by collecting taxes but by making investments.” Then they went about raising the roof on salaries. For example, former city manager Dave Burkland left in 2012 at $130,000 base salary. His replacement, Brian Nakamura, came in at $219,000. About a year later, Nakamura left for another job, and his assistant manager Mark Orme, also his former assistant in the city of Hemet, replaced him at a salary of $205,000. Now Orme enjoys a base salary of $223,000/year, with a benefits package of over $42,000. 

CalPERS keeps claiming a return of 7% on their investments. But, as Rauh says, ” it’s less and less likely that they will make their investment assessment, because they do risky investements.” So, why, oh why, does our council keep agreeing to annual pay raises for Orme and other management? Why did they give these people, in addition to their costly and generous benefits packages, 401k plans complete with an employer share? 

The problem is the salaries are too generous for the taxpayer to ever be able to guarantee 70 – 90% in retirement. Rauh says, “We need to turn things around using public pressure, discipline and common sense.”

Public pressure – read agendas and reports, do some simple research, and contact your elected officials to tell  them what you know about this problem. Some of our city council members seem genuinely clueless, willing to be led by  staff instead of the people. It’s time for the people to lead.

Discipline – I mean, really, read the damned agendas, read the reports, look up stuff you don’t understand, ask questions. Don’t let yourself believe you can’t make a difference, but yeah, it’s a lot of hard work. 

Common Sense – this issue really is simple, don’t let public employees try to make it sound too complicated. Here’s one common sense question to ask yourself – was I included in the conversation? Did I make these promises? Why should I be on the hook for these outrageous salaries and pensions? 

Now, using public pressure, discipline, and common sense, here’s what Rauh says we need to do:

“We need state and local governments to report their  unfunded liabilities honestly, the real numbers, using the 2 – 3 % yields that sound financial reporting would require. No more pie in the sky stuff…”  We have Stephanie Taber to thank, back in 2011, for demanding the finance reports be given properly. Then Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy was not doing reports at all, her boss Dave Burkland didn’t require her to do it. Can you believe that? What private sector company would get away with that? Taber had to use public pressure, discipline, and common sense. Now the finance reports are given every month and available online. 

And now, using letters to the editor and posts on this blog, Dave Howell is trying to question the city about their true pension costs, demanding they make their Annual Finance Report (CAFR) available to the public. The city is hiding their true liability figures, saying they are only $130 million in deficit when the true figure is over $200 million. 

“the truth should shock  voters into demanding action.”  Yes, it should, but people use the most ridiculous excuses for not paying attention. This is where discipline comes in – I’m not an accountant, but I’ve made myself read and understand those finance reports. You can too. And then open your mouth and squeal like Ned Beatty, cause you are being screwed.

The action Rauh suggests we demand is “to phase out the guaranteed pension programs as quickly as possible and introduce 401k plans…

I agree with Rauh. Public employees who do their jobs should be amply compensated. He calls 401k’s a “win-win’ which,  “if designed properly, can provide excellent retirement benefits…” Here’s the win for taxpayers – employees are responsible for their own investments, and if they choose poorly, the taxpayer is not on the hook to bail them out. 

Furthermore, “401k’s are portable, employees can take them along, don’t have to be locked into government jobs to get retirement benefits.

Now, unfortunately, here’s where the corrupt merry-go-round comes in – our council, fed on employee union donations, has already given management employees a type of 401k called a “457 plan”, in addition to their guaranteed pensions. Here’s Orme’s contract, read it for yourself:

http://www.chico.ca.us/human_resources_and_risk_management/documents/OrmeEmploymentAgreement10-2017.pdf

“The City has established a Deferred Compensation Plan in accordance
with Internal Revenue Code (IRC) 457 (“IRC 457 plan”). Effective from the first pay period in
January 2017 considered in calculating the maximum IRC 457 plan limit and annually, City agrees
to contribute nine thousand dollars ($9,000), to Employee’s IRC 457 plan. Additionally, effective
October 15,2017, the City agrees to contribute four and fifty- two hundredths percent (4.52%) of
base salary to Employee’s IRC 457 plan.”

In Chico, public employee unions SEIU, CPOA, AND IFFA are among the biggest donors in every council election. I think the only donor that gives more money is Franklin Construction.  So, I would add to Rauh’s list – change the laws to restrict donations from public employee unions. Our city council can do this, but as you can guess, that would take a lot of public pressure.

Rauh suggests “lets end the current structure of public sector pensions and move to a sustainable way of compensating our public employees.” He’s not advocating cutting anybody off, but frankly, I am. I would suggest we press council to refuse to approve new contracts for management employees who refuse to take pay and benefits cuts. As stated in Orme’s contract, council has the right to refuse salary increases, and even to ask employees to take a cut. Again, this would take a lot of public pressure. 

So, it’s really up to us. 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: