Our View: Don't change California employee pension rules

July 14, 2013 

A lot of public employees don't want people to know how much money they will make in retirement. That's apparent after public employee groups began seeking legislation to block CalPERS from releasing a searchable database containing pension information.

If California lawmakers consider such a bill, they will be making an enormous blunder.

Just a few weeks ago lawmakers took a public shellacking when they attempted to make the California Public Records Act "optional" for local governments, supposedly to avoid state reimbursements.

Will they repeat that mistake? Will they succumb to heavy lobbying by their biggest benefactors — public employee unions — which want to prevent public release of how taxpayer money is being spent?

Over the past decade, data about public employee salaries and pensions has helped media and nonmedia watchdogs identify abuses. By analyzing data about retirees with the highest pensions, reporters and investigators have been able to identify cases of pension spiking — in which well-connected employees are able to earn a late-career pension boost by arranging with cronies to get a promotion.

Access to records about salaries and pensions helped the Los Angeles Times expose the corruption in the city of Bell, where officials were padding their salaries — and increasing their potential pension payoffs — by obscene amounts.

If the Legislature makes it impossible to know the identity of pension recipients, it will be easier for corruption to flourish.

Is that what lawmakers want? More corruption?

Leaders of the Public Employees' Association and other state worker groups have focused only on limiting the release of pension information, not salary information. But it wouldn't be surprising, if a bill were be to introduced, that at least one of these groups would seek to amend the bill to limit release of salary information. If that had been the law just a few years ago, reporters never would have learned that Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo was making $787,000 a year.

Undoubtedly, some high-ranking officers of public employee unions would prefer that watchdogs have less ability to track pension spiking and other abuses. They are now seizing upon CalPERS' clumsily handled plan to seek a change in state law they wouldn't be able to obtain otherwise.

On Tuesday, CalPERS notified member organizations that it planned to launch an online database with information about retirees' pensions. At the time, CalPERS noted that watchdog groups and some media outlets had been posting such information. CalPERS said its move was an effort to keep the information "better protected" on its website.

We have no problem if CalPERS decides to drop its plan for a searchable online database, and continues its current system of providing pension data only on request. But this incident should not become a springboard for public employee groups to change the open records act.

To date, public access to pension information has served the public well, and we are unaware of any instance where it has harmed retirees or put them at risk — including those earning relatively low pensions. The only people it has "harmed" are those trying to take money from the public.

There is no problem here to fix — only one ginned up by CalPERS and the employee groups that control it.

If the Legislature falls for it, the result will be more corruption.

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