Opinion Columns & Blogs

Melanie Sill: A pension wake-up call

Public employee pensions have become one of the prickliest topics The Sacramento Bee covers, and the front-page story today adds some sobering numbers to the discussion.

Here's one: $28 billion.

That's the collective gap, according to The Bee's analysis, between the amount of pension money that's invested and the amount that's promised to employees and retirees in California's 80 largest city and county governments.

McClatchy's California newspapers teamed up on this project after reporting on ways pension obligations were adding to budget headaches in one locality after another.

Our aim was to provide the bigger picture beyond a string of local decisions.

Phillip Reese, a Sacramento Bee investigative reporter, led the work in gathering and analyzing information from local governments. His efforts yielded the best view so far of pension funding gaps statewide.

Graphics in our print editions tell part of the numbers story; at www.sacbee.com, you can find an interactive map with details by city and county.

Reese worked closely with reporters from The Fresno Bee, The Modesto Bee, Merced Sun-Star and San Luis Obispo Tribune, and the stories appear in those newspapers' print and online editions.

As Reese and his counterparts explain, the pension pressures didn't pop up overnight, nor are they easily solved.

The story isn't identical in every city or county, but there are some repeated themes:

Many localities improved retirement benefits for public employees during healthier fiscal conditions early in the last decade.

The stock market's declines during the recession caused investment values to drop, and a big debate about the gap hinges on future market returns.

Many localities increased their pension tab by raising pay for public employees, also during happier times.

This reporting adds important context for local officials who, as stewards of public spending, make choices that affect all residents as well as employees.

Some are considering benefits changes (mostly for future hires) to address the longer-term picture; others have taken this step already, but many are using bond money or service cuts to close the gap.

While this report focuses on local governments, the picture that emerged mirrors state pension funding in certain ways.

Last week, a Stanford University report kicked up dust with findings that our state's giant pension funds, CalPERS, CalSTRS and the University of California retirement system, were understating the amount of their unfunded obligations.

The gap, according to the report, is $500 billion. (To which an ordinary person can only say, in polite terms, holy cow!)

The funds' leaders promptly contested the Stanford report's findings and its calculation methods. But the matter needs much more attention and public debate.

The Bee's own reporting, based on information from CalPERS and CalSTRS, has shown that government employers will have to increase their contributions in coming years to meet pension obligations.

Government's debt is our debt -- taxpayers are the "employer" contributors to public pensions. So as stupefying as the large numbers can seem, we all have an interest in understanding them.

Today's stories are part of our commitment to digging into these complex matters and providing facts that can inform good decisions in the months ahead.

-- Melanie Sill

Reach The Sacramento Bee's editor, Melanie Sill, at (916) 321-1002.

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