Dan Morain

Dan Morain: McClintock feeds at pension trough

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

During his time in the Legislature, Tom McClintock occasionally would cite the First Rule of Holes, when he called on Democrats to stop spending more money on whatever their priority happened to be.

If you're in a hole, the Elk Grove Republican would say, you should stop digging. McClintock might consider imposing that rule on himself, as he gropes for answers to basic questions about his California taxpayer-funded pension.

For years, McClintock made a point of refusing the Legislators' Retirement System pension. That changed in 2008, when he was leaving the state Senate and heading to Congress.

McClintock, the anti-government career politician, earned his pension by spending 22 years in the Assembly and Senate, starting in 1982 when he was 27. I wrote about his pension last month, but dug a little deeper and found more to the story.

As he built his image as a tight-fisted straight-talker, McClintock's decision to refuse the pension may have given him credibility among conservatives. That was especially true when he criticized other legislators for approving what he would call overly generous pay and pension packages for civil servants.

His decision to take the pension – a fact he only began disclosing explicitly last year on his congressional financial disclosure forms – was doubly surprising given that the payment was modest, or so it seemed. Why, I wondered, would he squander his credibility for a relative pittance?

McClintock's press secretary explaining his reversal in an email a month ago: "He received $9,579 in public pension payments last year, compared to some other members of the California delegation who received up to $88,800."

That statement is accurate, but not particularly true.

As I later learned, and as McClintock undoubtedly knows, California law says that legislators who qualify for Legislators Retirement System pensions cannot collect more than $500 per month, plus cost-of-living bumps, so long as they hold other offices, such as congressional seats.

McClintock accurately stated that his total annual payment was $9,579 last year; it'll be about $9,840 this year, including a small California Public Employees' Retirement System pension for time he worked as an aide to the late Sen. Ed Davis after he graduated from UCLA.

But McClintock omitted a fact. When he leaves Congress – something he shows no sign of doing – he will be entitled to the full legislators' pension, based on his 22 years in the Legislature and his highest legislative salary, $116,208.

CalPERS refuses to release many details surrounding McClintock's pension, contending it is private. But after a letter from The Sacramento Bee's public records lawyer, Karl Olson, CalPERS provided a partial answer.

If McClintock were to quit Congress today – trust me; he won't – his annual state pension would be $77,472, eight times more than what he implied it would be. He also would receive yearly cost-of-living increases, plus an additional pension from Congress, where his pay now is $174,000 a year.

Some tight-fisted straight-talkers might call McClintock's multiple pensions double dipping. I'm sure McClintock isn't one of them, although in the past, he did use such terms to denounce some benefits for other people.

There was, for example, the 2003 legislation he opposed because it sought to permit cops in some situations to stay on the job and take part of their pensions in lump sums. That, he said, was "double dipping."

"For some reason," McClintock said in a 2003 statement denouncing the bill, typical of his digs at other legislators, "the dominant culture around here for years has been that pensions are an easy benefit to throw to politically powerful groups because it's something somebody else will have to worry about years from now."

The Legislators' Retirement System has relatively few participants, thanks in part to McClintock. Then-Assemblyman McClintock, cultivating his image as an anti-government politician, was a leading proponent of Proposition 140, the 1990 initiative that imposed term limits on the Legislature.

In addition to imposing legislative term limits, Proposition 140 abolished Legislators' Retirement System pensions for lawmakers elected after 1990.

The initiative did not, however, affect pensions of legislators who were in office before 1990, McClintock among them.

Although he opted out of his pension, a government code section gave him a way back in. He could simply buy into the system by paying his share of the cost of the retirement benefit.

Neither CalPERS nor McClintock would say how much he paid to reclaim his pension. But during his years in the Legislature, lawmakers' share of pension costs totaled $52,340.

Even if buying into the system cost him twice that sum, McClintock made a shrewd financial move. In less than two years of receiving his full pension, he will have more than made back what he paid to get into the system he helped abolish for his successors.

When I first asked McClintock about his decision to take his pension, he claimed through his press secretary that he only realized he could buy into the pension system in 2008, when he was leaving the Legislature.

"In November of 2008," McClintock said in July through his press secretary, "Mr. McClintock was approached by staff of the Legislators Retirement System and informed that he still had the option to buy into the pension systems for his state service, which he did at that time. Until then, he had not participated in the pension systems and was not aware that he could still do so."

The Assembly responded to my Legislative Open Records Act request by unearthing a letter from August 1992 addressed to McClintock when he quit the Assembly to make a failed run for Congress in Southern California, where he lived at the time. Then-Assembly Rules Committee Chairman Tom Bane invited McClintock to go over the perquisites he could receive as he departed.

Among the perks: "Benefits available under Legislators' Retirement System."

To my unpracticed eye, the letter suggests McClintock knew long before 2008 about his pension rights. But not according to a follow-up email from McClintock last week.

"Although he retained the right to purchase service credit prior to 1992," McClintock's email said last week, digging deeper, "he did not do so, nor was he aware his rights continued when he returned to the Legislature in 1996 until he was informed of his eligibility in November of 2008."

Based on the First Rule of Holes, McClintock should stop digging. But there is the lesser known McClintock Rule of Holes. It states that after spending three decades picking at other politicians over their profligate spending, you no longer hear the sounds of your own shoveling and risk burying yourself.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/morain.