A bipartisan, independent agency that promotes efficiency in government, the Little Hoover Commission studied the public pension issue for 10 months before issuing its findings Thursday. Much of the 90-page report is devoted to making the case that, to use the commission's blunt words, "pension costs will crush government." Without a "miraculous" improvement in the funds' investments, the commission states, "few government entities — especially at the local level — will be able to absorb the blow without severe cuts to services."
The problem is partly demographic. The number of people retiring from government jobs is growing rapidly, and longer life expectancies mean that a growing number of retirees will collect benefits for more years than they worked. But the report argues that political factors have been at least as important in driving up costs, starting with the Legislature's move in 1999 to reduce the retirement age for public workers, base pensions on a higher percentage of a worker's salary and increase benefits retroactively. The increases authorized by Sacramento soon spread across the 85 public pension plans in California.
Compounding the problem, the state has increased its workforce almost 40% since the pension formula was changed and boosted the average state worker's wages by 50%. Local governments, meanwhile, raised their average salaries by 60%. Much of the growth came in the ranks of police and firefighters, who increased significantly in number and in pay.