Another View: Pension database would be misleading

Published: Saturday, Jul. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A

The Bee's editorial board says that lawmakers shouldn't act to prevent disclosure of pension information for retired public employees ("Lawmakers need to protect state open records law," July 14). Here's what Californians will learn if CalPERS proceeds with a plan to put government employees' retirement information online: the average state public servant retires on just $26,000 a year. No luxury, no gold-plated anything.

What is worrisome about the California Public Employees' Retirement System's proposed online, searchable pension database is not what it would show, but what it would not. The economic activity generated by public employee retirement payments, the health of the state's pension system and the tremendous concessions public sector pensions have made in recent years would get lost in the unvarnished numbers. Also lost would be the contributions to our communities that firefighters, police officers, garbage truck drivers and others make. That's why CalPERS was right to delay the launch of that pension database.

In order to understand public pensions, we must also consider their positive impact. Last year alone, pension payments to retired public employees contributed $26 billion to the California economy. A recent study showed that California gains $6.71 for every $1 invested in pensions. In the state capital, retirement payments are the backbone of the Sacramento region's economy.

That hasn't stopped politicians and Wall Street billionaires from using public servants as scapegoats, blaming them for cities' and states' budget problems. Instead of doing the hard work of increasing revenue and being responsible about spending and balancing budgets, politically motivated pension critics assert that middle-class, rank-and-file workers are somehow culpable. That's simply not true.

Also, a pension database wouldn't show how many concessions public servants have made over the past few years. They have increased their own pension contributions, negotiated with local governments and helped reduce public costs. They have forgone raises, survived pink slips and endured increased workloads with fewer resources.

It's also worth pointing out that pension payments aren't secret. They're already available to any member of the public. The state's open public records laws guarantee it.

Opponents of public pensions would use an online database to launch another wave of attacks on police officers, firefighters, teachers and other public servants. They'd dig to find the handful of six-figure pensions in order to paint an inaccurate picture. Those kinds of payouts represent less than 2 percent of all payments – and no one is more eager than public employees to prevent gold-plated payments and abuses of the pension system.

CalPERS' delay of an online pension database ought to be a permanent one.

George Linn is director of public relations for the Retired Public Employees Association of California.

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