Jerry Brown has been a strong governor and a moderating force on budget issues. But when it comes to pensions, the new state budget projects that California has nearly $206 billion in “unfunded liabilities” for the state’s two public pension funds.
Over the last eight years, we added $100 billion in unfunded retirement liability for these funds. This is the elephant in the room of state finances, and it is time we got serious about it.
You probably haven’t heard much about the looming pension crisis because elected officials don’t like talking about it and it’s easy for them to kick the can down the road: they can make promises to public employees now that won’t come due until they’re out of office.
But the slow creep of pension costs is crowding out investments in other areas, including education, environmental stewardship, social services, and public transportation. In essence, the state is being forced to default on its social obligations to pay for its pension obligations. If you’re a progressive, fixing this problem may be the most important issue facing the state.
California’s state employees’ pension fund (CalPERS) manages close to $330 billion, making it the largest public pension fund in the nation. Unfortunately, it’s only funded at 65 percent of the amount needed for its commitments to retirees. And this is with the stock market at historic highs. If there is a downturn CalPERS could find itself with a much larger shortfall.
When pension shortfalls occur, Californians are on the hook to cover the unfunded liabilities. That will require us to draw on the state’s general fund: state money that would otherwise pay for education, health care, roads and other public services.
We’re already seeing pension liabilities crowd out other spending. General fund revenues have grown 28 percent over the past six years, but the share available for discretionary spending outside of public safety has declined from 21 percent of the…