Commentary: Public Pensions Unsustainable

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, August 21, 2009
A top official with the California Public Employee Retirement System conceded recently what long-term observers of government finances have been saying for years - California’s public employee pension costs are unsustainable.

Ron Seeling is chief actuary for CalPERS. He’s responsible for calculating pension costs of some 1.6 million state and local government employees. Speaking at a seminar, Seeling said “I don’t want to sugar-coat anything. We are facing decades without a significant turn-around in assets, decades of unsustainable pension costs.” Seeling’s comments were reported by veteran capitol reporter Ed Mendel in his Web log Mendel says Seeling was careful to make clear his views about sustainability were his own, not CalPERS' official position.

It’s generally agreed that pension benefits already earned can’t be taken away, but benefits for future hires can be reduced. Reformers say it’s not just public services that are being cut to pay for generous pensions: current workers are being furloughed or laid off to finance retirees, some of whom earn more in pensions than they did when they worked.

If union leaders don’t negotiate a solution to the pension crisis, they may find themselves facing a revolt from their own members. 

Ginger Rutland writes for The Sacramento Bee opinion pages.

*This is an extended version of the commentary heard on Morning Edition.