Many California lawmakers collect both pension checks and state salary
Republican state Sen. John Moorlach of Costa Mesa has emerged as a leading voice in the Legislature against skyrocketing debt piled up by public pension systems.
But some in the pension reform movement say the former Orange County treasurer may be contributing to the problem: Moorlach receives an $83,827 government pension check from the Orange County Employees Retirement System while making $100,113 a year as a senator.
At least 16 other state lawmakers collect two checks each month, including Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), who retired two years ago at 50 as a captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. When added to his legislative pay, Cooper's annual pension of $173,820 brings his total income each year to $273,000.
Advocates for a pension system overhaul say legislators are entitled to the benefits they earned. But, they add, the costly pension perk is an example of what is wrong with public retirement benefits: Government workers can retire too soon with lucrative benefits that the pension systems cannot sustain.
"It's a form of double-dipping, which makes a lot of people angry," said former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, who is planning a pension reform initiative for the 2018 state ballot. "Most of us have to work until we are 65 or 67 before we can retire when Social Security kicks in."
It's legal under current rules, said Dan Pellissier, president of the group California Pension Reform.
"But the optics are poor, certainly for an elected official to be taking another public salary after retiring," Pellissier said.
The information was gathered by a search of pension system records by the Los Angeles Times just as public policy makers are debating both legislative pay and excesses in public pensions.
Last month, state Controller Betty Yee reported that the public pension system has a long-term unfunded liability of $63.7 billion.
On April 27, a state panel will meet to consider whether to grant pay raises to California lawmakers who already receive the highest base pay of any legislators in the country, $100,113, far above second-place Pennsylvania's roughly $85,000.
Reed's proposed initiative to rein in pension costs, including a requirement for voters to approve benefits, would be the most serious attempt to address projected pension shortfalls since 2012, when Gov. Jerry Brown pushed through changes affecting future government employees.
The Legislature passed a law that orders current state employees to pay a greater share of the cost of their pension, and requiring new public employees who are not in public safety jobs to work until 67 to get full retirement benefits.
Brown said at the time that the bill was "not perfect" and that more changes may be needed in the state retirement system.
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Assemblyman Tom W. Lackey (R-Palmdale) agrees that additional action is required to make public pensions sustainable, but he defended his benefits. Lackey was 54 when he retired as a sergeant with the California Highway Patrol.
He receives an annual pension of $111,792 from the California Public Employees' Retirement System in addition to his $97,188 legislative salary. He did not accept a pay raise last year.
Lackey said the low retirement age for law enforcement officers and firefighters is justified.
"There is clearly room for improvement on the sustainability issue," Lackey said. "I do believe in my situation, law enforcement pensions deserve unique consideration just because of the danger and all the circumstances that surround that type of career."
Lackey said 56 CHP officers died in the line of duty during his 28 years with the agency. He also noted that current state lawmakers do not accrue credit for a pension.
The rules approved by Brown in 2012 apply to local public pension systems, including the one in Orange County, but the new retirement age does not affect those like Moorlach who were already employed.
He retired at age 59 just before he joined the Senate, and his retirement check is based on 19.7 years of service that included time on the Orange County Board of Supervisors and as the county treasurer.
When asked about several legislators collecting pension checks on top of salaries, Moorlach said, "It's not the people who are bad. It's the system that's bad. We've got to fix the system."
Moorlach said he warned in 2004 that the county was making a "massive mistake" by boosting retirement benefits. It went from a formula with a retirement age of 65 to one providing a share of salary payable beginning at 55.
After being told he could not opt out of the county retirement system, he abided by its rules, but he decided after retiring at 59 that he could still provide public service, he said.
"I could easily have retired at age 60, but I had a lot of my friends who said, 'We still want you involved, we want you to run.' I did it for public service," Moorlach said, adding that he agrees that the current system encourages public officials to retire early.
His acceptance of a county retirement check and a state paycheck also concerned one of his allies, Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which has pressed for pension reform.
"That doesn't look good," Fritz said. "I hate to say this publicly about John, but it's double-dipping."
Fritz, who advised Brown's office on his 2012 plan, said one solution to the problem would be to adopt rules similar to Social Security, which reduces retirement pay if the person goes back to work and earns more than a small amount.
"Something like that would be reasonable," she said. "We should do what we can to discourage people from retiring too soon."
Sacramento-Associated Press | LOS ANGELES (AP)/LATimes