King Chiang, Dethroned

Because I suspect almost no one else will, let me congratulate three associate justices of California's Third District Court of Appeal—M. Kathleen Butz, Cole Blease, William J. Murray, Jr.—for knowing an unconstitutional abuse of executive power when they see it. On January 24 they affirmed an earlier trial court decision declaring that state Controller John Chiang has no authority to dock the Legislature's pay for failing to pass a budget he judges to be unbalanced, as he did in 2011.

"Where the Legislature is the entity acting indisputably within its fundamental constitutional jurisdiction to enact what it designates as a balanced budget, the Controller does not have audit authority to determine whether the budget bill is in fact balanced..." Justice Butz wrote for the court. "As a result, the Controller is not a party to the enactment of the budget bill."

The decision should come as no surprise. Anyone who bothered to look at the state constitution could see it did not give Chiang the monarchal authority he asserted in 2011 (a category that excludes, alas, most of the state's pundits, who cheered the controller's abuse of power).

The appeals court ruling echoes the analysis I offered at the time: that Proposition 25, which provides for docking legislators' pay if they fail to pass a timely budget, does not give the controller any power to second-guess whether a passed budget is balanced; that the constitution grants the Legislature sole authority for determining projected budget revenues; that the governor's line-item veto power on spending is the executive check on legislative fiscal irresponsibility.

By clarifying the law today, the court has spared California much future anguish. Had it affirmed Chiang's claim of power, it would have added more opportunity for political mischief and grandstanding by future controllers to an already absurd system of budgeting. In California, it counts as a victory for good government whenever a court knocks down an attempt to make things worse.

The No-Growth Giveaway

Cosmo Garvin and the Sacramento News and Review have written the kind of deep analysis of the arena issue the city needs but hasn't received. He finds what anyone who has followed the sports extortion game would expect: Spending huge amounts of taxpayer dollars in giveaways to basketball arenas has little or no benefit to local economies. The outrageous claims of boosters "aren't real."

But the real news is that Kevin Johnson's team of hired liars have now essentially conceded that Garvin and the economic doubters are right.

They have released a new "study" making the usual bogus claims of the kind Garvin debunks. They say the arena will increase economic output in the region by $11.5 billion over 35 years.

Since this is the holiday season, let's be charitable and assume they are right. How big is $11.5 billion over 35 years?

The Sacramento metropolitan area had an output of $97.6 billion in 2012. If you assume economic growth at a nominal rate of 4 percent a year, the region will produce $8.2 trillion in total output over the next 35 years. Divide the claimed arena boost by total output and you find the claimed "incredible multiplier effect" from the arena would amount to only 0.0014 of the region's output over that 35 years.

How "incredible" is that? It is so tiny you need a microscope to see it. It is the economic equivalent of 11 hours in a year, or the length of two football fields on a drive from the State Capitol to Union Square in San Francisco. In other words, it is exactly what Cosmos Garvin's fine report shows: Arena subsidies bring little or no growth.

And now Kevin Johnson and his cronies have admitted it.

An Arena? Let the Grandkids Pay

After looking over Sacramento’s plan to go deep into debt to fund a giveaway to National Basketball Association, the editors of the Sacramento Bee proclaim it “doable.” The city, they assure their readers, has “the numbers to back it up.”

This conclusion can only mean those editors didn’t read or understand the numbers, because the numbers themselves shout, “Don’t do this!” The numbers describe a city that, despite imposing the highest and most regressive taxes in its region, still suffers from depleted reserves, large unfunded liabilities, and reduced levels of public services.

So how, in the face of that fiscal mess, does Sacramento buy an arena it can’t afford? The numbers say city leaders and the Bee want to make the grandkids pay.

Because city officials aren’t interested in helping citizens understand what they are up to and what the numbers mean, I’ve turned them into this picture:

Click to enlarge

The city wants to sell bonds to fund $212.5 million of its subsidy to a new arena for the Sacramento Kings. That’s the red-shaded arena on the graph. It plans to repay the debt with future revenues from parking in the central city.

But there’s a big problem here. The parking revenues are already spoken for. They are used to pay for parking operations and the mortgages on the city’s garages, with the balance going to the general fund for police and other services. There aren’t enough of those dollars to pay for all those things and the arena debt too.

To solve the problem of having more wants than wallet, the city takes the low road: borrow a lot more and delay the obligation to repay far into the future. It plans to take out an extra $91.5 million in debt (the yellow-shaded area in the picture) and use some of that extra borrowed money to pay the interest on the bonds for the first four years. A $212.5 million subsidy to the arena thus becomes $304 million in debt to be paid off over 36 years.

Is this “doable?” Yes. There’s a whole industry of investment banks, financial advisors, and consultants who, for a price, will show how to put together and sell, at very high prices, “doable” debt for cities that want to live beyond their means. (There’s also an industry of people who, for a price, will tell you how sexy you are.)

But it’s doable in the same way that you could take out a home equity loan to add an extra room on your house, then pay the interest on the equity loan by stopping your contributions to your retirement account and pulling a cash advance out of the Visa card until you’ve paid off the car loan and have a few extra dollars. What’s “doable” is often the way to end up poor and bankrupt.

The black line on the graph shows the remaining debt from the deal over time. The city won’t begin making principal payments on that debt until 2022, and full principal payments won’t begin until 2034. The whole debt won’t be repaid until 2050. And repayment of the $212.5 million portion of the debt taken out to subsidize the Kings (the red-shaded area) won’t start until 2038, 22 years after the arena is supposed to open. The grandkids will pay all of it.

If that debt were buying something likely to make Sacramento a better place for them in 2040 or 2050—flood control, schools, bridges, parks, housing—pushing the repayment obligation deep into the future would be one thing. But arenas are more like cars than houses. They begin losing value the day they open. Team owners drive them for 10 or 15 years, then declare them “obsolete.” They demand taxpayers buy them a new one, or at least a complete and expensive overhaul. And cities rarely have the courage to refuse them.

So let’s be clear about what the numbers mean. The city and the Bee want the largest burden of paying for an arena in the present to fall on people in the future who will likely never buy a ticket there because it’s already gone or “obsolete.” (And if you doubt that, go count the number of today’s arenas that were around 30 years ago and never substantially overhauled. It’s zero.)

Instead of being able to use their own resources to pay for the public services and projects they need in their own time, our grandchildren will be paying for a subsidy a previous generation cheered but then put on the credit card—to go along with the unfunded liabilities for pensions and retiree health benefits of city workers.

Isn't that the kind of government irresponsibility we pay newspapers to warn us against? Apparently Bee bigwigs Cheryl Dell, Joyce Terhaar, and Dan Morain are so busy waving pompoms for the owners of the Kings they don't have time to watch out for the future of their community.

Sacramento Bee Misleads on Arena as Tax

On his City Beat blog, Ryan Lillis, city hall reporter for the Sacramento Bee writes that opponents of a subsidy for the NBA Kings arena in the city are misleading voters when they say that it means higher taxes. In fact, the opponents are more right than Lillis.

It is a fundamental principle of public finance that any spending by a government that does not have its own currency must ultimately be paid for by individuals and firms — through taxes, fees, or exactions. As conservative economist Milton Friedman liked to say (in a phrase that liberal economists frequently quote), to spend is to tax.

So, too, with the proposed arena subsidy in Sacramento. The city's$346 million contribution to building the arena is a government commitment of public resources that must be repaid by the city's taxpayers. It's a tax of roughly $700 on every resident of the city.

How exactly that money will be collected is still an open question. Sacramento remains mired in the process that the New York bond analyst who writes online under the pseudonym Bond Girl describes thusly:

Officials then work with their friends in the banking community to craft some borderline-insane financing scheme that involves the city, or some puppet nonprofit established by the city, issuing a combination of tax-exempt and taxable bonds to pay for the new facility. Debt service will be paid from a combination of grossly exaggerated facility revenues and whatever other miscellaneous revenues the city manages to scrape together. (“Hey, how about parking revenues? Our parking garages will be packed once the city’s economy is rejuvenated by the presence of a professional sports team. The facility is practically paying for itself this way.”) Officials will then probably hire some economic (prostitute) consultant to reverse-engineer revenue projections that make the project seem feasible. Maybe the city decides to back the bonds directly.

Whatever "borderline-insane financing scheme" ultimately emerges, one fact will remain: any public resources devoted to the arena could otherwise be used to pay for other city services like police, fire, parks, culture, and libraries, or to reduce taxes. To spend is to tax.

What Lillis neglects to tell us is that the signature gatherer he ignorantly brands as "misleading" is doing no more than paraphrasing what the Bee's own columnist, Dan Walters, has suggested: that the higher Measure U sales tax enacted in 2012 and due to expire in 2019 will be used and extended to pick up the arena bill.

Supporters of the arena subsidy understandably don't like to talk about it as a tax. Mayor Kevin Johnson is demanding that his city, home to the poorest residents in the region, carry the entire burden for a facility that caters predominately to higher-income people. (This may explain why the strongest supporters of the subsidy live outside the city; it's easier to love a tax you don't have to pay.)

Poor City

And it's even harder to talk about the arena as a tax when your city already has the highest taxes in the region. Only Galt has a sales tax as high as that in Sacramento (8.5%). The city's utility user tax rates (7.0% and 7.5%) are triple those in other parts of the region. These taxes are both highly regressive, hitting the essentials of life—heating, cooling, clothing—that make up a high percentage of the budgets of the poor. The city that's home to many of the region's poor hammers them hardest.

Vigilant and useful journalists would be explaining this to the region. Instead, as in so much of the Bee's cheerleading coverage of the arena subsidy, Lillis brands as "misleading" the very citizens who are raising the right questions about who benefits from the giveaway and what it might mean for the future of a financially and economically troubled city. He owes them an apology, and the Bee owes its customers and city better reporting and analysis.

Prop 13 as Original Sin

Give credit to David Crane. Unlike the pundits and would-be tax reformers who moan about California state government's boom-and-bust revenues, Crane, who was economic advisor to former Gov. Schwarzenegger, is brave enough to state the obvious: Prop 13 is the original sin.

Why are state revenues volatile? Because over the last 35 years California voters and policymakers cut the taxes that vary least with economic conditions, leaving governments increasingly dependent on the ones that vary the most.

The first and biggest whack, as Crane notes, was the 1978 Jarvis-Gann Prop 13, which cut and capped the property tax, a revenue source that declines only in the most dire economic moments, such as the Great Depression and the bursting of the housing bubble in the Great Recession. It was followed by the 1982 initiative eliminating state gift and inheritance tax and Schwarzenegger's 2003 cut in the vehicle license fee (which, perhaps not surprisingly, Crane fails to mention). Even more than the property tax, these were stable revenue sources, death and driving being inevitable features of the California scene.

But when they cut taxes, Californians didn't mean they wanted fewer public services. They have filled the void, partly by raising sales tax rates (since Prop 13 the combined uniform state-local rate has gone from 6% to 7.5% plus locally approved add-on levies for transportation or general city services); and partly from the rising yield of the personal income tax, which delivered more and more dollars because of the enormous shift of income to the wealthy that has taken place over the past several decades. Now, with the higher rates on the rich enacted last year in Prop 30, the yield will be even greater.

But it will also be episodic. Income tax collections swing with capital gains in the markets, and taxable sales swing with the economy (they fell 18 percent from 2007 to 2010).

As Crane argues, the right cure for this volatility would also be good for the state's economy. I think he exaggerates the risk that California's current taxes will cause the rich to flee, but he's right that our current tax balance—high taxes on work and investment, low or no taxes on property and oil—is "crazy." From an economic perspective, property taxes are, in the words of conservative economist Milton Friedman, "the least bad tax there is." If you tax land, you don't have to worry that you will cause people to produce less of it. If California imposes an oil severance tax, as every other oil-producing jurisdiction in the world does, you don't have to worry about the oil disappearing or oil prices rising, because oil prices are set by a global market, in which California tax policy is but a blip. Shifting taxes toward land, oil, and carbon and reducing them on work and investment would strengthen the economy while providing a more stable base for public services.

Crane cautions that, before changing Prop 13, "governments would first need to reduce pension and health-care liabilities." But here he has it backward. As we show in California Crackup, it was Prop 13 and the governing system it created that made the out-sized pay and pensions of local government workers possible and perhaps inevitable. Getting rid of them is the necessary condition for creating a local taxpayer counterweight to public employee power in city and county politics.

Will the NBA love Sacramento if it doesn’t put out?

I’m reminded, as I watch the saga of the Sacramento Kings, of one of those movies about the plain girl in high school—the girl who’s smart and sensitive but aches to have the cool kids like her and a boy tell her she’s pretty.

Right now, with the National Basketball Association’s relocation committee having recommended against moving the Kings to Seattle, we’ve reached the scene when the heroine, her inferiority complex in full bloom, sees her wildest dream come true. She’s been invited to the prom! And not just by another nerd. No, she’s been asked to share the big night with the star of the basketball team, the most handsome and suave of the in-crowd!

Doubt—does he really like me?—gives way to giddy excitement. She trades her normal drab uniform (baggy brown sweater over black tights) for a shimmering sheath, sweeps up her hair in a stylish do, and performs magic with the makeup tray. Bliss is just a limo ride away.

Of course, the audience knows what she doesn’t, something she may suspect but won’t let herself believe. The basketball hero, a bully and predator, has asked her to the prom only because he’s bet his crew he can have his way with her before the night is out. The homely ones are the easiest to nail, he brags. They’re so desperate they always put out.

Sacramento has so far played the heroine to perfection. If they awarded Oscars for desperation, it would sweep the field. Driven to madness at the prospect of losing the Kings, the city’s elected officials broached the idea of offering more than $300 million, roughly $600 per city resident, in subsidy to the NBA.

But now the plot turns. With the move to Seattle vetoed, the argument that Sacramento taxpayers must throw a wad of cash at the NBA because keeping the Kings was somehow economically vital—a weightless argument always—is moot. Here they stay.

Moreover, the city’s latest budget, released the same day the NBA decision was revealed, makes clear that an arena subsidy is money the city doesn’t have and, even if it did have it, needs more vitally elsewhere. The budget shows deficits and more cuts in already savaged city services as far as the eye can see—and then comes the “cliff”: the expiration of the temporary city sales tax that went into effect April 1.

So this is where the plain girl thanks her date for a lovely evening, expresses her hope that they will stay friends, and closes the door. There is no reasonable case for putting out.

The End.

Roll the credits.

Wait, wait, wait, I hear cheerleaders for an arena subsidy shout, that’s not how the movies go. The basketball dude doesn’t take “no” for an answer. If Sacramento doesn’t put out, the NBA will change its mind and move the team.

Really? Do those cheerleaders understand what they are telling us?

That all the nice words the NBA has spoken about Sacramento’s long and loyal customer support of the Kings are just sweet nothings, lies whispered in our ears to distract us from its true agenda.

That the crew of superrich would-be owners of the Kings and self-proclaimed believers in Sacramento and its future, men whose wealth surpasses all understanding by mere mortals, men like Vivek Ranadivé, who modestly bills himself on his blog as “entrepreneur, technology visionary, author, philanthropist, angel investor,“ are so bereft of capital and imagination they to cannot do what Gregg Lukenbill—the local developer, a guy in flannel shirts, jeans, and steel-toed boots, who brought the Kings to Sacramento in 1985—managed to do: build an arena without having to apply for AFGB (Aid to Families of Grasping Billionaires).

That should Sacramento balk at his advances, Ranadivé will lean into the face of the heroine and say, "Don’t you get it, you ugly bitch? I’m only here because I bet I could get into your pants."

Now that’s a movie I’d pay to see.

Eye on Sacramento Eyes the Deal

Eye on Sacramento, a local citizen watchdog group, has done what the Sacramento city staff and the Sacramento Bee have failed to do: write a comprehensive analysis of the terms and risks of the proposed city giveaway to the NBA Kings.

Read it and be sure not to miss my favorite part: where Stanford economist Roger Noll, a leading expert on sports economics, notes that the free luxury suite that the City Council and Mayor have negotiated for themselves will cost Sacramento taxpayers $8 million.

Now we know who are the real Kings in Sacramento.

Sacramento's Pig in a Poke

Here's a little quiz. Below are extracts from two separate documents assessing the proposal that Sacramento taxpayers hand over a quarter of a billion dollars to subsidize a new arena for the Kings pro basketball team. Read them and then answer a question.

  1. The development of the Entertainment and Sports Center [ESC] will not only transform Downtown Plaza into a thriving center of entertainment and activity, it will also provide Sacramento with a first-class venue for sports, entertainment and cultural events.... The project will serve as a catalyst for economic development in downtown and throughout the region.

  2. The proposed new arena... poses a variety of challenges for the City of Sacramento’s fiscal health. The city’s fiscal position is already tenuous—the Great Recession hit Sacramento particularly hard.... Spending money on an ESC will affect the local quality of life to the extent that these resources could be used to backfill some underfunded local assistance programs, education, or infrastructure projects. In addition to the already tenuous fiscal situation, the projections of the increase to local economic activity underlying the projected economic impact of the ESC are likely overstated.... The city is gambling with this investment. If it fails, it will put enormous stress on the city’s finances in the near and distant future.

One of these passages was written by an advisor employed by a team owner seeking the subsidy from the taxpayers. The other was written by a city employee charged with providing sound advice to elected officials and protecting the public interest. Which is which?

It will surprise no one that the first passage comes from the city staff report laying out the terms of the newest version of the arena giveaway. Such puffery has been the norm from the city in the arena discussion.

No, the surprise is that passage that tries to make realistic judgments about Sacramento’s economic strength and fiscal capacity to do an arena deal comes not from those paid to protect the public but from the analysis of the 2012 arena proposal (the current plan Is largely the same) that was written for the Maloof family, owners of the Kings, by Christopher Thornberg of Beacon Economics.

You won’t find anything in the city staff report that approaches Thornberg’s informed concern for the public interest and the future of the Sacramento. I won’t repeat what Neil deMause has written at Field of Schemes in his dissection of the arena term sheet and what he calls the “perpetual parking revenue machine.” The report is full of double-counting and lacks the detail needed for the public or council to make an informed judgment on its workability. I’ll only note that it’s an insult to the intelligence of elected officials and voters to offer up a half-baked analysis on a decision of such magnitude.

But even more troubling than the parking mystery black box is the city staff’s continued use of arena revenue projections that Thornberg has shown, through careful analysis of the Kings own books and Sacramento’s economy, “to be based on, charitably, best-case scenarios or, not so charitably, a wing and a prayer. Rather than hoping for the best but planning for the worst, this arena proposal plans on the best while ignoring the worst.”

Relying on wishful thinking would put both the city and team at risk, Thornberg pointed out. “When the expected revenues fail to materialize, both will end up severely financially distressed. Given the current budget difficulties faced by the city, such potential outcomes cannot be ignored—as the lessons of Stockton, California, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, demonstrate.”

Thornberg’s analysis and message, which I highly recommend you read, became even more relevant with the vote last week at the California Public Employees Retirement System to raise pension contribution rates by 50 percent over five years, which will deliver a hit to city finances roughly double the size of the proposed arena subsidy. It’s not often a consultant of Thornberg’s caliber—and he is widely seen as one of the most sane and reliable economists in the state—writes so bluntly. But it’s the kind of bluntness that good staff provide when big decisions with big stakes are at hand.

And, sadly, it is exactly what Sacramento’s own lavishly paid city manager and treasurer have failed to deliver. They totally ignore Thornberg’s work and fall back on the wing and the prayer. Why? Is it arrogance? Incompetence? A careerist desire to tell the elected bosses what they want to hear, the public good be damned? I can't say.

All I know is this: In my years covering Sacramento city finances as a journalist and serving as deputy state treasurer, I have seldom seen such shoddy analysis and so little concern for the public good from public servants. If this is all Mayor Kevin Johnson and the City Council expect, Sacramento is in deeper trouble than any of us ever imagined.

NBA Handout? Let Voters Decide

It now looks like there’s a chance that the decision about whether to pay extortion to the billionaires of the National Basketball Association could be made by the people of Sacramento themselves. Two lawyers representing opponents of the subsidy to the Kings franchise have sent a letter to the city’s leaders asking for a public vote on the question and suggesting that a referendum is likely if the city council does not itself seek voter approval.

A public vote is a good idea. As we pointed out in California Crackup, the referendum is the underused tool in the kit of California direct democracy. Unlike the state’s inflexible initiative, which is used for getting around elected lawmakers and tying their hands, the referendum is about holding a conversation: Our representatives make decisions and through the referendum we voters tell them whether they got it right, or should go back and try again.

The people’s right to pass judgment on legislative action through the referendum is guaranteed in the California constitution and Sacramento’s city charter. “The powers of the initiative, referendum and the recall of elected municipal officers are hereby reserved to the electors of the city,” the charter states, echoing the language of the state constitution. “All ordinances which may be passed by the city council shall be subject to referendum, whenever the use of the initiative or referendum is permitted by state law applicable to cities,” the charter provides. Qualifying a referendum against the issuance of revenue bonds for the arena would require signatures of 10 percent of the number of people voting for governor at the 2010 general election, or about 12,000 people.

If the past is truly prologue, though, expect Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his allies on the council to do everything they can to avoid making voters part of the conversation.

As the lawyers’ letter notes, “Last year, the City Council expressly voted not to allow the residents of Sacramento an opportunity to vote on the prior version of the proposed subsidy,” and put off taking any legislative act that might have triggered a referendum vote. It is the standard tactic of these sports extortion games to use a combination of delay and made-up deadlines to turn subsidy decisions into moments of crisis, where drama reigns and emotion defeats evidence and logic.

Expect Johnson and the friends of the billionaires to tell citizens that there can’t be a public vote because the deadline is too near—even though the deadline is too near because they wanted it that way. Expect them to follow the same path as the city of Santa Clara, which blocked a voter referendum on the subsidy for the new 49er stadium. Sacramento City Attorney Jim Sanchez has already claimed to reporters that the council’s upcoming March 28 vote on a “term sheet” for an arena handout isn’t subject to voter review because it isn’t a “final” act.

But California courts have found that the referendum right applies broadly to all legislative acts by city councils, and state law explicitly recognizes the referendum can be used, for example, to test voter approval of issuing revenue bonds, which would likely be used in any arena subsidy scheme. A time will come, perhaps many of them, when the council will have take a legislative action to make an arena subsidy real, and thereby trigger a referendum opportunity.

As divisive as the sports corporate welfare issue is, any attempt by Sacramento’s leaders to deny the city’s citizens their final say in such a critical decision would be more explosive still. Wouldn’t it be better to have the civic conversation upfront, before voices get raised and lawsuits filed?

Will Sacramento Be a Sucker For the Kings?

Your city is plagued with high unemployment, rising crime, declining public services, and unfunded liabilities that now amount to $2 billion, or about $5,000 per resident. What do you do?

Well, if you are the Sacramento City Council, you vote, 7-2, to signal your willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars you don’t have to subsidize a billionaire by building a basketball arena. “Every great city has a coliseum,” said Steve Hansen, a council member.

But the question for Sacramento is not what great cities have but what measures a failing city should take to make itself great. Paying corporate welfare to the rich doesn’t even make the list (something that Hansen, a corporate lobbyist himself, may be professionally forbidden to recognize.) At Zócalo Public Square today I explain how the dark side of sports loyalty blinds those whom the gods wish to destroy.

Pension Reform Trap II

It’s been an item of faith among would-be pension reformers that switching public employees from defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution plans like 401(k)s would save taxpayers money. When I’ve suggested here that the savings may never materialize, the faithful have scoffed.

So here’s one, early data point: In its new budget, San Diego is projecting a $40 million increase in pension costs for the coming year, much of it due to the switch from defined benefit plans approved by voters in June 2012 in the Prop. B reform plan.

This is not a surprise. It was predicted by San Diego’s Independent Budget Analyst.

A switch to defined contribution pensions doesn’t, by itself, save money. Because of higher fees charged by financial institutions and the lower returns realized by individual workers in self-directed retirement accounts, it takes higher levels of contributions to achieve a given level of retirement savings in 401(k) plans. For the switch to save taxpayer dollars, government employers must either reduce their workers’ retirement saving or cut their wages. In San Diego, Prop B will yield lower costs for taxpayers only by holding total city worker pay—wages plus benefits plus contributions for retirement plans—below the levels anticipated before passage of the measure. In particular, this will require learning to say no to police and firefighters.

Good luck with that.

Expensive Cops = More Crime

The New York Times has a new story linking rising crime in Sacramento to cuts in the local police force. I doubt any reader finds this particularly surprising. Most people assume that putting police on the streets helps deter some crime and results in the arrest of criminals who aren’t deterred, thereby preventing them from offending again.

What the Times doesn’t explain is why Sacramento’s leaders would choose to inflict such a policy on their community. Are they just nuts?

You have probably guessed at least part of the answer. Like the rest of the nation, Sacramento was hit hard by the recession. It was one of the cities at the epicenter of the bursting of the housing bubble. The combination of the two economic blows depressed the city’s property and sales tax revenues, forcing budget cuts.

But another part of the answer is the extravagant level of pay and benefits for police and fire employees.

According to the California State Controller’s database, 168 police employees in Sacramento received in excess of $100,000 in reportable wages in 2010. Most of these also received more than $20,000 in city contributions to health insurance premiums and employer’s assumption of the employee’s share of pension contributions. In addition, 225 of the 446 fire department employees were paid more than $100,000 in wages.

The “why” here is clear. It is difficult for any community to provide adequate levels of police and fire protection when it pays cops and firefighters twice the average wage of full-time workers in the community.

The puzzled readers of the nation’s paper of record would have been well served by this added context.

Molly Munger Unmasks the Impostors

My co-author Joe Mathews has brilliantly skewered all those politicians and journalists who don’t want California voters to compare and contrast Propositions 30 and 38. Their attitude, as he writes, is both “nuts, and profoundly anti-democratic.”

It is also, I would add, self-serving. A robust and honest debate over those two measures threatens to expose the big secret about California’s leaders, media, and voters, a secret that has been sitting in plain sight for anyone willing to see it: as much as they say they care about schools, the reality is that almost everything else is more important to them.

Read More

Prop 31 Crashes and Burns

The California Budget Project, long the gold standard for intellectual honesty and rigor in California policy analysis, has published its overview of Proposition 31 on the November ballot.

The analysis is long and detailed. (How could it be otherwise for a ponderous jumbo-jet of a ballot measure, which weighs in at over 8,000 words, longer than the original U.S. Constitution plus its subsequent 225 years of amendments?) But it’s worth the time. The CPB doesn’t take positions on measures, but as you read, you will feel the damning details add up, like ice glazing the wings, until the plane stalls under the accumulated weight, falls out of the sky, crashes, and burns.

Read More

California's shrinking public workforce

If you’re one of those people who likes to blame California’s public workers for the state’s problems, Stephen Levy of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy has good news for you. California’s public workforce, which has long ranked among the smallest in the nation relative to population, shrank even further from 2007 to 2011.

The ratio of California state and local employees per 10,000 residents fell by 7 percent in that period; the ratio of K-12 school employers fell by 11 percent. These numbers are Census Bureau estimates for March 2011. Given the continuing budget cuts and workforce reductions by the state government, cities, and school districts over the last 18 months, the current numbers are far lower.

Which means that if you are one of those people who’d like the police to investigate and capture car thieves or who’d like the fire truck to arrive quickly in an emergency or who’d like your child’s school to have a library where she can research her homework or a counselor to guide her through applying to college—well, chances are that you are out of luck.

A Pension Dialogue

Scribbler: As someone who has written a paper about pensions, you must be tremendously disappointed by the pension bill just passed. As our fellow scribblers at the Los Angeles Times said, “Brown’s plan to stem pension costs is no panacea.”

Curmudgeon: Panaceas are as hard to find as unicorns and Mitt Romney tax returns.

Scribbler: But surely you agree with Dan Walters that the “Pension overhaul plan falls short.”

Curmudgeon: That headline is also going to be on Walters’ column the day after the Second Coming. He will fault Jesus for not having returned hundreds of years ago to spare millions from hellfire and damnation, and he’ll scoff that salvation is just a promise, easily revoked when Yahweh throws one of his Old Testament fits of temper, or needs a contribution from the prison guards.

Scribbler: So you think it’s real reform?

Curmudgeon: What is “real reform?”

Scribbler: Don’t go all Socratic on me. Even under AB 340, most public workers in California will have pensions better than most people in the private sector.

Curmudgeon: True. Public workers will still enjoy more security than the huge numbers of private-sector workers who have totally inadequate retirement plans, or none at all. But as Micah Weinberg and I wrote in our paper, taking away retirement security from public workers doesn’t add to the sum of well-being in society. Envy is not reform, it’s one of the seven deadly sins, best cured by repentance and prayer.

Scribbler: Okay, but you agree that pensions are way too expensive, right?

Curmudgeon: If pension costs are your measure, then the bill certainly counts as reform. It reduces the pension formula for new workers, requires employees to pay half the normal cost of pension contributions, caps the size of pensions, and curbs lots of abuses. That will save a lot of money.

Scribbler: But former legislator Joe Nation, now at Stanford and a pension critic, says that “No one should believe that this is going to have an appreciable impact on the public pension problem.”

Curmudgeon: CalPERS actuaries estimate that AB 340 will save the public between $43 billion and $56 billion over the next 30 years. The present value of that savings is between $12 billion and $15 billion, roughly equivalent to what the state spends each year to run the prisons and support the two university systems, UC and CSU. (If CalPERS’s estimates used the low discount rate that critics like Nation trot out to puff up their estimates of the system’s unfunded liability, the present value of the savings would be much larger.) Hobnobbing with the billionaires in Silicon Valley may have warped Nation’s sense of proportion, but like most folks, I still count saving $12 billion as “an appreciable impact.”

Scribbler: So you do, in fact, think this is real reform. How can you say that when the large pensions promised to current workers haven’t been curtailed?

Curmudgeon: And just how might you go about curtailing those pensions? The courts have been firm in ruling that pensions are a contractual obligation that can’t be retroactively taken away.

Scribbler: Pension hawks like David Crane and Joe Nation say that the law isn’t as clear as it appears and that local governments ought to try to convince the courts that reducing future pension accrual by current workers is permissible because the only alternative is deep cuts to parks, libraries, and public safety.

Curmudgeon: If they want to mount a full frontal attack on the machine gun nest, I wish them all the luck in the world. Just remember, though: Judges have pensions too.

Scribbler: What a cynic. So we just give up now?

Curmudgeon: No, not at all. But we ought to try to think more clearly about the real issue here. It’s not pensions. What matters is total compensation for public employees. The public needs to hire people to teach our children, guard our streets, put out our fires. In return for their work, we pay them with a package of compensation, some of it providing them current income, some of it future income: a wage, a health insurance plan, a pension, employer contributions to Social Security and Medicare, and, in some cases, retiree health benefits. As a taxpayer, I don’t care how public workers want to divide that bundle of compensation between current pay and retirement income. I care about the total cost to the public employer.

Scribbler: What’s your point?

Curmudgeon: The point is, if you understand the real issue, it becomes obvious that there may be more promising strategies than attacking the machine gun nest, with its protective legal bulwarks. We can achieve lower total costs more easily by reducing or containing other parts of the package.

Scribbler: Such as?

Curmudgeon: Nation has suggested that California recoup some of those overly generous pensions with a surtax on the pensions of “double-dippers,” public retirees who collect a pension while they continue to work.

Scribbler: That’s all?

Curmudgeon: For years there has been growing concern among budget wonks about the growing cost of, and unfunded liability for, retiree health benefits. Now we have a real opportunity to act. Retiree health benefits are a relic, first authorized in 1961, before the passage of Medicare. Even after Medicare came into being, its benefit package was incomplete, and workers who retired before Medicare age had no assurance that they would be able to qualify for, or afford, coverage in the individual market. The passage of the Affordable Care Act has changed all that. In 2014 every retiree, early or not, will be able to buy health insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions. Obamacare has solved the problem retiree health care benefits were created to address. We can, in good conscience, eliminate them and harvest for state and local budgets the savings made possible by our historic move to universal health insurance.

Scribbler: Doesn’t that create legal issues, too?

Curmudgeon: For people already retired, yes. But there’s no bar to eliminating retiree health benefits for new workers and those for whom they have not vested, either because of insufficient years of service or contractual language.

Scribbler: That’s your panacea?

Curmudgeon: No, you haven’t been listening. There are no panaceas—never are, never will be. Over the last generation, the combination of a broken governance system and public inattention has allowed the total compensation of public employees—and most particularly that of police, firefighters, and prison guards, which is far out of line with national standards—to soar. It will take years of hard bargaining and sustained attention to the issue to bring that compensation back in line. For example, my calculations suggest that the considerable savings achieved in AB 340 would be totally wiped out by a 7 percent pay increase. If we don’t keep watching, the gains will disappear.

Scribbler: Do you really think that the media, politicians, and public in California are capable of that sustained attention?

Curmudgeon: Hey, how about those Athletics and Giants!

Mandated Craziness

Over at Zócalo Public Square, Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura and one of the smartest people in California local government, offers a calming counterpoint to media worries about open government. The state budget decision to suspend some parts of the open meeting law won’t lead to city council meetings in basement rathskellers and other secret nasties, he writes—or at least not to any more of them than we’d see (or not see) even when the law’s in full effect. Most reporters won’t agree, but Cole writes about the issue with more nuance and complexity than you’ll see from many journalists, who rarely acknowledge that rules governing openness in government come with tradeoffs.

What Cole doesn’t convey is the pure nuttiness behind the whole discussion. If open government has “become part of California’s civic DNA,” why must we suspend the law that guarantees what everyone says we want?

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Cops Versus the Schools

In an excellent analysis over at EdSource, Robert Manwaring, a veteran California school policy wonk, asks a deceptively simple question: “If K-12 matters most, why doesn’t state budget reflect this?” Unfortunately, as newspaper folk put it, he buries the lede.

Having been guilty of the same crime here in the past, let me remedy that error for both of us:

California is 47th in school spending because cops, fire fighters, and prison guards have sucked up all the money.

California elected officials say that schools are their highest priority. So do the voters in polls. But that’s not how they act.

And until, as Joe Mathews nicely puts it, “you walk into a police station, and all the cops at the desks are 65,” all that political talk about schools being our highest priority is just hot air.

High-speed rail: A green light for Molly Munger

The morning after the California Senate approved funding for high-speed rail, the Sacramento Bee carried a front-page photo of Senate president Darrell Steinberg giving a double fist pump of victory. As glad as Steinberg appeared to be, though, it’s hard to imagine that Molly Munger, the Pasadena civil rights attorney, wasn’t even happier. By approving high-speed rail, legislative Democrats and Jerry Brown have just given away their best argument against her school-funding measure on the November ballot.

To understand why, you have to get beyond the media’s careless habit of lumping Munger’s proposal with Jerry Brown’s rival budget measure as competing “tax measures.”

Yes, both measures do temporarily raise taxes — Brown’s on everyone, Munger’s on households in the upper half of incomes, both with the heaviest increase put on the very wealthy. But the measures differ sharply in purpose and aspiration.

Brown’s measure is about eating your spinach. It raises taxes temporarily in the hopes of stabilizing the budget at the current austerity levels of state spending. It aims at keeping things from getting worse.

Munger’s measure, on the other hand, injects only a part of the revenue it raises into Sacramento — to help pay down debt and relieve some of the pressure of interest payments on the state budget. Mostly it aims to work a revolution in school funding for the purpose of closing the achievement and opportunity gap that is California’s most pressing challenge.

Munger’s measure would route the new money around state and district bureaucracies, keeping it off the bargaining table, and give it directly to schools, where parents would be given a larger role in deciding how to spend it to benefit their own children. Munger is inviting California, after years of austerity and muddling, to think big.

For months Brown and his union allies have been bashing Munger for irresponsibility. California needed to put first things first, they said. New tax dollars should go to putting the state’s budget house in order, not tackling problems in big and bold ways. Munger’s measure came at the wrong time, they charged, threatening confusion and the defeat of Brown’s more responsible approach.

And now, after the high-speed rail vote, Californians understand they didn’t mean a word of it.

By any reasonable reckoning, the high-speed rail plan approved by the Legislature is not ready for prime time. As both the Legislative Analyst and independent observers have pointed out, the state doesn’t have a clue about how to finance the project. High-speed rail, which will raise greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades, will compete for funding with the urban transit projects of greater economic and environmental value that California so badly needs to deal both with congestion and its climate goals. It tells you all you need to know about the viability of the plan that the senators most knowledgeable about high speed rail (and among its biggest boosters for years) voted against it.

But reasonable reckoning did not win out. Nor did Brown’s previous call for “a modicum of stoicism.” What carried the day, at least rhetorically, was the injunction to think big.

“I think what we did today,” Steinberg declaimed, “is going to be seen over many years, and many decades, as a turning point in California, a time when we decided to say ’yes’ to hope, ’yes’ to progress, ’yes’ to the future.”

If California can put aside caution and budget restraint to pursue a big and expensive frill like high-speed rail, can there be any doubt about the message the state’s leaders are implicitly sending when it comes to dealing with schools, the state’s (and voters’) highest priority, and to Munger’s call to revitalize them?

To the future! they are saying. Go, Molly, go.