Posted On: July 20, 2009

Sunlight Must Shine on Pensions

California is broke.

There's plenty of blame to go around, but one of the prime culprits is a lack of transparency. If people don't know how public money is being spent, it's hard to ensure that public money is being spent wisely.

One especially troublesome area is public employee pensions, especially for police and firefighters. Legislators who are wary of offending the powerful public safety lobbies, and voters deluged with glossy brochures of burning buildings and police in uniform, have handed public employee retirees pensions which far exceed those in the private sector. In San Francisco alone 709 retirees get pensions of over $100,000 a year. Most private sector workers don't earn that kind of money while still on the job. Other local agencies in the Golden State also have hundreds of workers in the six-figure pension club, and the state's pension fund, CalPERS, has nearly 5,000. This is happening while the state is trying to close a deficit of more than $20 billion.

Making matters worse, some public employee retirees recently fought a legal battle aimed at keeping the public from knowing the amount of their pensions. They unsuccessfully argued that the public which funds their lucrative pensions has no right to know how much they receive.

Several newspapers and a taxpayer group intervened in that case and convinced a judge that the pension payments are public information. Good thing: as public agencies across the country scratch and claw for money and cut services, it's more important than ever to know how public money is spent.