Battle over pension spiking bill

The California Teachers Association and the state teachers retirement system are pushing for significant changes to SB 27, Sen. Joe Simitian’s bill that would prevent “spiking,” the practice of larding on compensation near retirement to boost a public employee’s pension – a practice that is drawing increasing scrutiny. It also would limit the types of compensation that would be used in calculating a standard pension.

The late-in-coming amendments pose a new challenge to the bill, which raced through the Senate without opposition, and could spur a larger discussion on pension changes. A similar bill by Simitian passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger because it was tied to another pension bill that troubled him.

Simitian’s bill would apply to all current and future public workers. Any employee who received a pay increase of 25 percent or larger over the final five years of employment would automatically have the raise audited by the public pension system: CalSTRS in the case of educators. (Educators whose pay rose more than 25 percent in taking a job in another district would be excluded from an audit.)

Another provision, to thwart double-dipping – receiving a public paycheck and a pension simultaneously – would ban an employee from returning to work as a contract or full-time worker for 180 days after retirement.

The board of CalSTRS and the CTA want to limit SB 27 to future employees arguing that current workers have inviolable vested rights to benefits that have already been negotiated. Doing so, however, would substantially reduce immediate savings to the system at a time that CalSTRS is looking to the Legislature for a sizable boost in taxpayer subsidies because it has yet to recover from the stock market meltdown in 2008.

Proposed cap on pension benefits

CalSTRS and the teachers union are calling for a simpler – and more encompassing – way to deal with spiking: capping the amount of compensation that can be counted toward a defined benefit pension at $147,000 instead of requiring reviews. CalSTRS reports that, statewide, 1,600 administrators not covered by bargaining agreements earn more than $147,000; their compensation above that would be credited toward their individual defined benefit supplement accounts, which work like a 401(k) with a lower guaranteed rate of return, thus saving taxpayers money.

Doing it this way would exclude teachers, who rarely make as much as $147,000 and don’t get the kinds of perks that have led to spiking. SB 27 is aimed, in part, at school boards that have boosted the salaries of superintendents and high-ranking administrators through short-term promotions. A report in the Sacramento Bee found that nearly half of the 225 Sacramento retired educators with pensions above $100,000 got at least a 10 percent pay raise in one of their last three years. Depending on how long they’ve worked, employees’ pensions are based on either their highest-paying year or the average pay in their final three years.

Spiking has been an issue in municipal and county governments as well. In Contra Costa County, for example, two fire chiefs, ages 50 and 51, retired with pensions greater than their highest salaries.

Restrictions on qualifying compensation

Under Simitian’s bill, the value of non-salary income, like car allowances, life insurance, and unused vacation pay, would not count in determining a standard pension. This money would, however, be credited toward the supplemental program. To no surprise, the administrators’ lobby, the Association of California School Administrators, opposes the bill.

The only significant change for teachers is that unused sick pay would no longer boost years of sevice in pension calculations. It too would now be credited in the supplemental program. (Some readers will no doubt argue that, as in most private companies, unused sick pay shouldn’t count toward retirement benefits at all.)

The Pacific Research Institute estimated four years ago that pension spiking cost California taxpayers $100 million each year. CalSTRS estimates that SB 27 would yield savings of $10 million annually, but it also said that it would have to hire a dozen people to do the audits and spend $5 million to update a system to flag potential violations.

CalSTRS has been criticized recently for its failure to crack down on alleged spiking. This issue became public after CalSTRS executives fired Scott Thompson, a whistle blower whom they claimed lowered a pension without authorization and refused to restore it. Pension administrators recently told the CalSTRS board they planned to establish a new unit to review questionable compensation cases,  regardless of SB 27’s fate.

Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, told me that the existing system that permits padding “isn’t fair to taxpayers and to most employees who aren’t in a position to have their incomes spiked and rely on pension systems to be solvent. The status quo undermines public support for appropriate pensions that retirees rely on.”

A newly retired teacher last year earned an average pension of $49,000. Educators receiving six-figure pensions remain a small proportion of the 852,000 teachers and administrators served by CalSTRS, but the focus of public ire – or envy.

CalSTRS this month reported an impressive 23 percent return on investments for the year ending June 30, the best  in a quarter century. And it followed a 2010 return of 12.7 percent. But even so, CalSTRS, with $154 billion in assets, remains $25 billion below its peak in October 2007 – and only 70 percent funded. To become fully funded could require more than $2 billion in taxpayer subsidies, between additional school districts’ benefits contributions and the state general fund’s portion of retirement contributions.

Anti-spiking legislation, Simitian notes, “is the low-hanging fruit of pension reform. It should be easy.” He said he has not taken a position on the CalSTRS amendments.

Update: Education Week reports that other Legislatures are also curbing “double-dipping.”