By Ed Mendel
The one thing some pension reformers say is needed to cut the cost of unaffordable public pensions: give current workers a less costly retirement benefit for work done in the future, while protecting pension amounts already earned.
It’s allowed in the remaining private-sector pensions. But California is one of about a dozen states that have what has become known as the “California rule,” which is based on a series of state court decisions, a key one in 1955.
The pension offered at hire becomes a “vested right,” protected by contract law, that cannot be cut, unless offset by a new benefit of comparable value. The pension can be increased, however, even retroactively for past work as happened for state workers under landmark legislation, SB 400 in 1999.
Last week, an appeals court issued a ruling in a Marin County case that is a “game changer” if upheld by the state Supreme Court, said a news release from former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who wants to put a pension reform initiative on the 2018 ballot.
Justice James Richman of the First District Court of Appeal wrote that “while a public employee does have a ‘vested right’ to a pension, that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension — not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension.
“And the Legislature may, prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pension. So long as the Legislature’s modifications do not deprive the employee of a ‘reasonable’ pension, there is no constitutional violation.”
The ruling came in a suit by Marin County employee unions contending their vested rights were violated by a pension reform enacted in 2012 that prevents pension boosts from unused vacation and leave, bonuses, terminal pay and other things.
These “anti-spiking” provisions apply to current workers. The major part of the reform legislation, including lower pension formulas and a cap, only apply to new employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013, who have not yet attained vested rights.
The California Public Employees Retirement System expects the reform pushed through the Legislature by Gov. Brown to save $29 billion to $38 billion over 30 years, not a major impact on a current CalPERS shortfall or “unfunded liability” of $139 billion.
Similarly, legislation two years ago will increase the rate paid to school districts to the California State Teachers Retirement System from 8.25 percent of pay to 19.1 percent, while the rate paid by teachers increases from 8 percent of pay to 10.25 percent.
The limited teacher rate increase followed the California rule. The new benefit offsetting the 2.5 percent rate hike vests a routine annual 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment, which previously could have been suspended, though that rarely if ever happened.
While mayor of San Jose four years ago, Reed got approval from 69 percent of voters for a broad reform to cut retirement costs that were taking 20 percent of the city general fund. A superior court approved a number of the measure’s provisions.
But a plan to cut the cost of pensions current workers earn in the future by giving them an option (contribute up to an additional 16 percent of pay to continue the current pension or switch to a lower pension) was rejected by the court, citing the California rule.
In a settlement of union lawsuits, Reed’s successor locked in some retirement savings but dropped an appeal of the option. Reed, a lawyer, thinks the California rule is ill-founded and likely to be overturned if revisited by the state supreme court.
He has pointed to the work of a legal scholar, Amy Monahan, who argued that by imposing a restrictive rule without finding clear evidence of legislative intent to create a contract, California courts broke with traditional contract analysis and infringed on legislative power.
“California courts have held that even though the state can terminate a worker, lower her salary, or reduce her other benefits, the state cannot decrease the worker’s rate of pension accrual as long as she is employed,” Monahan wrote.
In the ruling last week, Justice Richman describes the setting for the reform legislation: soaring pension debt after the financial crisis in 2008-09 and a Little Hoover Commission report in 2011 urging cuts in pensions current workers earn in the future.
He cites several court rulings in the past that conclude cuts in pensions earned by current workers are allowed to give the pension system the flexibility needed to adjust to changing conditions and preserve “reasonable” pensions in the future.
Some of the court rulings cited allowed changes in retirement ages, reductions of maximum possible pensions, repeals of cost-of-living adjustments, changes in required service years, pensions reduced from two-thirds to one-half of salary, and a reasonable increase in pension contributions.
“Thus,” Richman wrote, “short of actual abolition, a radical reduction of benefits, or a fiscally unjustifiable increase in employee contributions, the guiding principle is still the one identified by Miller in 1977: ‘the governing body may make reasonable modifications and changes before the pension becomes payable and that until that time the employee does not have a right to any fixed or definite benefits but only to a substantial or reasonable pension.’”
Richman’s ruling makes several references to a unanimous state Supreme Court decision in 1977 in Miller v. State of California. He said the foundation of the unions’ constitutional appeal is a “onetime variation” in one word in another ruling.
“To be sustained as reasonable, alterations of employees’ pension rights must bear some material relation to the theory of a pension system and its successful operation, and changes in a pension plan which result in disadvantage to employees should be accompanied by comparable new advantages,” the state Supreme Court said in Allen v. City of Long Beach (1955).
Richman said a 1983 state Supreme Court decision (Allen v. Board of Administration) changed “should” have a comparable new advantage to “must,” citing two other State Supreme Court decisions that said “should” and an appeals court decision that said “must.”
In a decision a month later, he said, the Supreme Court used “should” while referring to a comparable new benefit and has continued to use “should” in all rulings since then.
“It thus appears unlikely that the Supreme Court’s use of ‘must’ in the 1983 Allen decision was intended to herald a fundamental doctrinal shift,” Richman said, citing two rulings that “should” is advisory or a recommendation not compulsory.
The 39-page decision written by Richman and concurred in by Justices J. Anthony Kline and Maria Miller makes other points in its rejection of a rigid view of the California rule and pension vested rights.
“The big question for pension reformers is whether or not the California Supreme Court will agree,” Reed said in a news release from the Retirement Security Initiative. “If it does, the legal door will be open for Californians to begin to take reasonable actions to save pension systems and local governments from fiscal disaster.”
There was no immediate word from the Marin Association of Public Employees and other county employee unions last week about whether the appeals court decision will be appealed to the Supreme Court.
Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
By Ed Mendel