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OC Register Editorial Board Just Can’t Tell the FULL TRUTH About Pensions

In the ongoing debate over public employee pensions there are some areas where agreement can be found among all parties. There is agreement that the funding levels for most public employee pension plans need to be improved; that just as benefits were adjusted in good economic times, benefit adjustments need to be considered in bad economic times. Unfortunately, The Orange County Register Editorial Board manages to ignore those areas of agreement and drives the debate on their pages full speed into a cloud of fear; using distorted or out of context statistics to create an environment of angst and anger amongst their readers.

Not only is this unnecessary, it’s unproductive. Take for example their recent editorial Pension Tipping Point.

It seems as if our Editorial Board has been waving its arms about emerging pension calamities for so many years that we could be U.S. Navy semaphore signallers… For some time following the early 2000s, when the destructive policies and practices were voted or negotiated into place, many of the warnings were still warnings, and the dire predictions had yet to materialize. Now, though, the tipping point has been reached and even the government, in its own analysis of itself, is demanding drastic change.

“Truthiness” arguments are yielding to clear-eyed assessments. Register Watchdog columnist Teri Sforza on Thursday sorted the union argument that said the big pensions were being mostly earned by managers, not the rank and file. The rank-and-file salary they cited was $24,000 a year, a far cry from headline-grabbers such as $100,000-plus a year. But, Sforza wrote: “Yes, …the average CalPERS pension is less than $30,0000, but that figure includes all retirees from all past years, including those sane years before 1999.” She quotes the Little Hoover Commission report: “For state workers retiring in 2008-09 with more than 30 years of service, the average pension was more than $66,000.”

Again, the Orange County Register has distorted pension statistics to stoke the fear of looming disaster and myth of outrageous pension benefits. Their reference Teri Sforza’s reporting that the average pension of someone with 30 years of service is $66,000 is a prime example of this tactict. The problem with the 30 year $66,000 figure is that it is not a relevant statistic for the discussion. The average number of years of service for retirees is 20.2 years, not 30.

Teri has also reported that the number of retirees receiving 100K plus pensions increased by 50% in the last year. That seems like a lot, but when you look at the overall number of retirees at this level the number is dramatically less significant. Sforza stated that the number of retirees with 100K plus pensions is 9,111. That number represents 1.18% of the total 513,623 retirees in the CalPERS system.

In an editorial supporting the misguided, knee-jerk decision of the Costa Mesa City Council to issue 203 layoff notices to city workers in order to consider contracting out their jobs, the Register again relies on faulty, and unsubstantiated data used by the Council to support their flawed decision. The majority on the Costa Mesa Council claim that the city is broke, “we will be insolvent by this fall”, Councilman Eric Bever stated last Tuesday while trying to justify his vote. But given the fact that no budget had even been forcast for next fall, his claim is irresponsible at best, and rediculously false at worst.

Mayor Pro Tem Righeimer presented a chart that he claimed was produced by CalPERS showing a dramatic increase in pension contributions projected for the next five years. The problem with those statistics is that the do not take into account the ongiong improvement in the economy, and project the short-term increase of pension contributions due to the economic collapse that began in 2007, far beyong the 5 year smoothing period used to offset those losses. Further, on questioning from Councilwoman Leece, we learned that the projections Righeimer presented as having been prepared by CalPERS, was actually prepared by city staff.

Public employee pension benefits are a serious matter. They represent commitments that the taxpayers have made through years of contract negotiations where short-term salary increases were substituted for the long-term security of retirement benefits. Pensions are not just some political football to be tossed around in a high stakes game of political career advancement. They represent the reasonable retirement benefits offered to our government workers.

While I understand the desire to pull surprising, and even shocking statistics, out of a report to prop up a flawed argument; in this case the Orange County Register seems to have noting else to support their position.