Dave Low is the Chairman of Californians for Health Care and Retirement Security (CHCRS), a coalition representing California’s teachers, nurses, peace officers, firefighters and other public employees .
The most recent alarmist language from pension opponents is that Californians must make a choice between providing a secure retirement for our state's seniors and paying for every other social service and progressive cause. The warning bells are earsplitting, as fear mongers go to such extremes as to tell us that California won't be able to tackle climate change unless we overhaul the pension system.
But it's not education or pensions, it's not climate change or pensions. These are false choices that continue to be put forward by the same millionaires and hedge fund managers that got us into this mess.
It's not one or the other, because budgets are made up of thousands of decisions. There are several reasonable ways that the state could raise revenue without impacting social services, without impacting taxes, and without crippling the retirement system that so many of our friends and neighbors have paid into and now rely on for retirement security.
Beginning with a special conference committee hearing in Carson City on October 26th, Sacramento is slated to begin a timely and deliberate re-crafting of California's public pension system. Both the governor and the Legislature plan to launch a thorough review of the system — with meaningful hearings and in-depth exploration of fair and workable fixes — which will be a positive step toward ensuring the system's stability and long-term affordability.
The condition of public pensions in California is not a crisis despite the best efforts of pension slashers to portray it as such. Pension costs make up just three percent of the state budget, a percentage that has actually fallen $600 million over the past two years as collective bargaining has increased the share public workers contribute to their pensions and as funds have taken tougher lines on pension spiking.
It is absolutely worthwhile to consider how to ensure that California's public pension systems remain on a sound footing and able to provide a secure retirement for public workers. But issues about the cost/benefit of public employee pensions have become a major point of contention in the heated debate on how to fix California's state budget problems. Pension-spiking poster children, manufactured data supposedly showing huge unfunded liabilities and false charges of labor intransigence have cast a dark cloud over public pensions.
For instance, a common claim is that pension costs will bankrupt state government. In fact, the entire costs of pensions for state workers in 2011 will be $3.5 billion, barely 4% out of an $85 billion budget. Add CalSTRS and the total is not even 6% of the budget. If we paid zero into public employee pensions and eliminated them altogether, we would not come close to solving the budget deficit.