Only government-employee union officials at this point are denying the reality of California's pension crisis, as public pension debts estimated as high as a half-trillion dollars are crushing state and local governments and threatening to increase the burden on already hard-pressed California taxpayers. Meanwhile, the disparity keeps growing between government employees, who retire with guaranteed cost-of-living-adjusted benefits that too often top $100,000 a year, and private-sector employees who must rely on 401(k)-style plans supplemented by the increasingly shaky Social Security system.
This problem didn't happen by accident, and the worst pension expansions and abuses have taken place in the past decade — in California, in particular, since the 1999 passage of Senate Bill 400, which greatly expanded pension benefits across the state. Indeed, the well-respected and nonpartisan Little Hoover Commission released a report in February explaining that 200 public agencies increased pension benefits "in the months since the steep decline in the stock market and housing values in 2008. ... Up and down the state, cities, counties, and fire and water districts rewarded employees with 'golden handshake' agreements that provide extra service credit to retire early; introduced favorable methods to calculate pension benefits based on the single highest year of compensation; and lowered retirement ages."
Remember, those increases came after the economy went south, and policymakers were aware of the heightening pension unfunded liabilities, or debt. Yet where are the politicians who did this?
Most of them are trying desperately to change the subject or to point their fingers at others for the problems or, of course, blaming the economic downturn for their own short-sighted decisions. We have been shocked by the chutzpah displayed by many of these officials.
News reports noted that Newport Beach and Laguna Beach officials just expanded pension benefits for their lifeguards, by arguing that they will flee for other locales if not granted these lucrative deals. We don't think there's any dearth of applicants for these highly paid and enormously benefited lifeguard positions, and it's not as if the beach cities risk losing lifeguards to places such as Riverside or Santa Ana. This is the lamest explanation we've heard in a while.
Officials can run, but they shouldn't be able to hide, from their pension-padding votes and their current poor excuses for them.