Many California cities have issued “pension obligation bonds” to cover rising retiree benefit costs with borrowing rather than tax money, based on the same assumption that arbitrage – betting that the difference between loan interest rates and investment earnings – can be a net winner. However, like Orange County and SANDAG, some learned that trying to predict global markets is dangerous. The largest single debt owed by the city of Stockton when it declared bankruptcy was a pension obligation bond. Hundreds of school districts issued “capital appreciation bonds” that postpone repayments for decades while the accumulated interest magnifies debt. Poway Unified in rural San Diego County became a poster child for financial irresponsibility when it was revealed that its $105 million bond would cost $1 billion to repay.
Six years later, the state is no longer projecting massive deficits and the governor’s metaphorical wall is now more like a short fence. Tax increases approved by voters in 2012 and in 2016 have played a major role in making that happen. There’s broad agreement that a smaller “wall of debt” is good news. The problem, though, is that Brown’s original definition left out billions of dollars in obligations that someone will have to pay. And it’s unclear who that will be or when it will happen. . . . When he took office, Brown’s budget team identified 10 short-term government debts as a threat to California’s chances of recovery — debts that totaled $34.7 billion. . . By the close of the fiscal year that ended on Friday night, the state had paid off some $32 billion of the “wall of debt” identified by Brown in 2011. . . . Looming larger than anything now are the retirement promises made to state employees — totaling at least $242 billion, according to the governor’s finance team. Some insist that projection is too low, that taxpayers will have to hand over much more to fully pay off obligations to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS). Add those pension debts to other chronic obligations — transportation loans and borrowing from special budget funds during lean years — and the state Department of Finance puts the total size of existing budget debt at more than $283.3 billion.
Despite a bright economic climate, voter-approved state tax hikes and $74.5 billion that California will devote to K-12 education and community colleges in 2017-’18 — a $3.1 billion year-over-year increase — schools are in financial distress. . . . With a currently healthy state budget, the biggest threat to balanced school budgets is the growing bite taken by public retirement systems — CalSTRS for teachers and CalPERS for support staff. Next school year, those taxes will be about 15 percent of employer payroll. In four years, the CalPERS payroll tax will exceed one-quarter of salaries and is scheduled to continue growing in an effort to enable it to better cover its projected retirement payouts. CalSTRS also will also grow.
In a big victory for labor, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday approved a contract giving six raises in five years to members of the Department of Water and Power’s biggest union. The vote came despite objections from some council members over what they considered a rushed process that didn’t give them time to scrutinize the deal. It also is expected to open the door for other labor groups at City Hall to demand generous salary packages at a time when the city is struggling with tight budgets and financial woes
Union dues take a large bite out of the paychecks of California teachers. We estimate that newly hired, full-time teachers will pay $37,000 in dues over a 30-year career. Further, if new teachers could fully opt out of the union and instead save their dues in an Individual Retirement Account, they would each have $228,000 extra in after-tax retirement savings.