In California, Many Police and Firefighters Get $100,000 Pensions

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At least 9,000 public employees earn almost double the median income every year of their retirement

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Efforts to reform California's public employee pension system got a boost Wednesday from a Sacramento Bee investigation that unearthed some staggering numbers. "Almost 9,000 retirees in the California Public Employees' Retirement System receive at least $100,000 in annual benefits," the newspaper reported. The figure is being seized upon by critics of state worker compensation, who point out that the median taxpayer in the Golden State earns just $56,000 per year.

In fairness to California's public employees, the average pension drawn by last year's retirees was a more reasonable $38,000. "The outliers are driving the discussion," says union spokesman Steve Maviglio. "It's frustrating." In order to ease his mind, let's focus our criticism  on the real culprits: the legislators who made retiring police officers, firefighters and correctional officers eligible to earn 90 percent of their peak salary for life after they retire. These "public safety employees" account for most of the six-figure pensioners, often because they work a lot of overtime and cash out unused vacation days in the last year of their contracts, artificially boosting their salaries and thus the sum they'll receive every year until death.

That doesn't frustrate Maviglio, who insists that "people who put their lives on the line every day deserve a secure retirement." But do they "deserve" more than twice the US median income? Do they "deserve" the sum the average California teacher makes, plus $32,000? Do they "deserve" pensions far higher than the highway workers whose jobs are much more dangerous? These aren't idle questions, given the public safety worker retirements we can expect in the near future. To cite one example:

About 18,000 local public safety and California Highway Patrol officers in the Cal-PERS system were 45 or older in 2009, the latest state figures show. Most can retire at age 50 and get 3 percent of their highest pay for every year they worked, usually up to 90 percent. Their average pay: $108,000.

That's $1.75 billion.

This issue is another example of the public employee problem that confronts the American left. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that public employees are bad people, or that I blame them for negotiating lucrative compensation packages, or that they're all overpaid. What I insist is that compensation and work rules in the public sector offer numerous glaring examples of dysfunction. Sometimes compensation is so generous that resources are obviously being misallocated. Other times, excessive job security is the problem. Combine these trends and taxpayers are faced with a public sector that grows ever more expensive and less efficient. In that environment, antagonism to expanding government is rational, especially if it seems like Democratic Party leaders aren't interested in reining in even the most egregious public sector excesses.

So what say you, Governor Brown?


Image credit: Flickr user Scazon
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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