Sacramento Bee Viewpoints: Public pension vitriol is in fashion – and unfair

By Allan Clark
Special to The Bee
Published: Sunday, Jul. 10, 2011

In a nation ever gripped by its latest obsession, there is a new fixation. It's not some starlet's stint in rehab or a fad diet. It is an attack on the generally modest checks collected by retired firefighters, teachers, public health workers and more.

"Pension reform" is the "tough on crime" of 2011 – the political slogan of the season. The once jargony words "unfunded liabilities" and "air time," like hanging chads and megawatts before them, have crept into the public vernacular (or at least that of the media, the politicians and those who pay attention to them).

This drumbeat against public pensions is misguided, coming at a time when workers – public and private – are being left behind as the nation's economy sputters back to health and corporate executives enjoy jaw-dropping profits and raises.

Those who seek to obliterate retirement security for public workers fist-pound about pension systems supposedly on the brink of bankruptcy. They point to a tiny fraction of large public pensions to paint all public employees as living large at the public trough. And they wrongly blame public employee pensions for the fiscal woes of states, counties and cities across the nation.

The U.S. Census Bureau, however, just reported that the 100 largest public retirement systems grew in the year's first quarter by 10.2 percent from a year earlier, signaling the sixth consecutive quarter of year-on-year gains. Most public employees collect an average $2,200 a month in state retirement benefits. And most of the pension changes being discussed would not save a single dime in current budgets.

Meanwhile, new data uncover the sad fact that the nation's economic recovery is benefiting corporations and their executives and largely leaving the rest of us in the dust. Northeastern University economists reported last week that corporate profits captured 88 percent of the growth in income since the fiscal recovery began in June 2009, while wages and salaries accounted for slightly more than 1 percent.

The median pay for chief executives at 200 of the nation's largest companies rose an astounding 23 percent last year, the New York Times reported.

Still, it's middle class civil servants that are in the political bull's-eye.

The strategy of pension critics is calculated. It taps into the anti-government anger of many private sector workers who have seen the disintegration of their own retirement accounts. Yet it is these same precarious 401(k)-style plans that they seek to force on public servants. Even California's majority Democrats, who so often are accused of bowing to those who represent public workers, are hopping on the bandwagon by saying they will support a vague slate of pension changes.

The fact remains, however, that it is public employees who are stepping up and saving taxpayers money in pension costs.

At the state level, public employees have agreed at the bargaining table to pay more toward their retirements, slashing state pension costs by $600 million over two years, according CalPERS. In some cases, California public employees' contributions to their pensions have climbed by 5 percent to 11 percent.

At the local level, meanwhile, as cries for "pension reform" grow ever popular, public workers from Bakersfield to Brea have stepped up. Public employees in 185 local jurisdictions in California have lowered taxpayers' costs by reducing pensions for new hires, increasing member contributions, or both, according to CalPERS. In Riverside County, firefighters prevented the closure of a Blythe fire station by agreeing to pension changes that are saving $1.6 million.

California's public employees are working with policymakers to shave public costs – all the while mopping public school breezeways, repairing highways and shielding homes from wildfires. They are scrimping and saving in the face of pay cuts, furlough days and pink slips. They are defending themselves from the siege that has become the latest craze in American politics: pension busting.

It is wrong to take retirement security from these people, or from anyone in this nation's working class, as corporate bosses ride the economic recovery right back to riches.

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