CalPERS: A Legal Ponzi Scheme

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California’s lame-duck Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger likes to remind us, as he did last week, that California is facing an “unsustainable path that has taxpayers on the hook for $500 billion.”

Exhibit A is SB 400 of 1999, which  increased benefits for California state government employees between 20% and 50% — without the money to pay for them.

This is in essence a legal version of a Ponzi scheme where new investors pay old ones until the whole thing collapses.

Schwarzenegger aide David Crane has called SB 400 “the largest non-voter approved debt issuance in California history.”

The bill was signed during the dot-com boom and the legislature relied on vague promises that the investment wizards at California’s giant pension system would generate the money out of thin air.

Needless to say, that hasn’t exactly worked out.

On June 16th, Schwarzenegger struck a deal with four unions representing 23,000 of the state’s 170,00 unionized workers to roll back the benefits that were given away in SB 400. If similar agreements are reached with the state’s eight other employee unions, state savings in FY 2010-11 would total $2.2 billion, $1.2 billion General Fund.

Even with the cuts, Calpensions’ Ed Mendel notes, pension benefits for CHP officers are still more generous than the days before SB 400.

Democrats led by Gov. Gray Davis signed SB 400 as a thank-you to the unions that helped end 16 years of Republican rule in California the previous November.

Even though the legislature is controlled by Democrats. It needs to be said that the bill was supported by both parties. It passed unanimously in the Senate. Only seven members of the 80-member California Assembly voted against it.

The most notorious passage in the bill provided highway patrolmen with 3 percent of final pay for each year served at age 50, a significant improvement of the pre-SB 400 formula of “two at 50″ — 2 percent of final pay for each year served at age 50.

This is much, much more than 1 percent increase.

Before SB 400, a highway patrolman had to work 45 years before he could retire with 90 percent of pay. The bill shaved 15 years off that time, allowing them to retire with 90 percent of pay after 30 years on the job.

In 2008-2009, a full third of the payroll for all highway patrolman now goes into their retirement accounts.

CalPERS believed they could cover the additional costs through “continued excess returns” and said it expected that contributions from the state would hold steady at $350 million.

Instead, the compound annual growth rate of CalPERS investments grew a pathetic 1.6 percent from 1999 to the end of 2009. On June 16th, the same Schwarzenegger announced his deal with the unions, CalPERS announced that it was raising the state’s contribution to $3.9 billion.

CalPERS unfunded liability, the percentage of benefits promised that can be covered by the fund’s assets, has risen from $158 billion in 1999 to $238 billion last year.

With its myriad accounting trips, CalPERS can “smooth” (hide) losses for generations. Some day the bill will come due.

It’s looking increasingly doubtful that there will be anybody left to pay it.

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