Two checks: State lawmakers collect public pensions and legislator’s salaries
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.
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."
State legislators are paid $100,113 annually but many receive government pension checks at the same time, including:
Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove)
Annual public pension: $173,820
Government service: Cooper retired two years ago at age 50 as a captain with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.
Biographical details: He is former chairman of the Assembly Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security Committee.
Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield)
Annual public pension: $112,980
Government service: Fuller spent 30 years in public education and was superintendent of the Keppel Union School District.
Biographical details: She is the Senate Republican leader and is vice chairwoman of the Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. Fuller is also a member of the Senate Public Employment and Retirement Committee.
Assemblyman Tom W. Lackey (R-Palmdale)
Annual public pension: $111,792
Government service: Lackey retired at age 54 as a sergeant with the California Highway Patrol.
Biographical details: He did not accept a pay raise last year, so he receives a Senate salary of $97,188. Lackey is vice chairman of the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego)
Annual public pension: $103,000
Government service: Weber taught at California State L.A. and Los Angeles City College. She was also a professor at San Diego State.
Biographical details: She spent decades in higher education and has spent her time in the Assembly serving on the Appropriations, Budget, Education and Higher Education committees among others.
Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa)
Annual public pension: $83,827
Government service: Former Orange County treasurer and member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors with a total of about 19 years of county service.
Biographical details: An outspoken critic of unsustainable pension benefits, Moorlach is a member of the Senate Public Employment and Retirement Committee. He is vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee and serves on the Budget and Fiscal Review and Governance and Finance committees.
Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-South Los Angeles)
Annual public pension: $83,544
Government service: Jones-Sawyer worked for the city of Los Angeles in roles including director of asset management and assistant deputy mayor.
Biographical details: He is chairman of the Public Safety Committee and serves on the Higher Education, Government Organization and Agriculture committees. He is the former chairman of the Los Angeles County Small Business Commission.
Assemblyman José Medina (D-Riverside)
Annual public pension: $63,420
Government service: Medina retired in 2012 after many years as a teacher with the Riverside Unified School District.
Biographical details: He was a school board member on the Jurupa Unified School District Board of Education and completed three terms on the Riverside Community College District Board of Trustees. Medina is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education.
Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego)
Annual public pension: $59,481
Government service: Block served as a dean, professor and legal advisor at San Diego State.
Biographical details: He served as a San Diego Superior Court judge pro tem and statewide president of the California County Boards of Education. He chairs the Senate Education Budget Subcommittee, the Committee on Banking and Financial Institutions and the Legislative Jewish Caucus.
Assemblyman Richard Gordon (D-Menlo Park)
Annual public pension: $51,293
Government service: He spent 13 years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, which was a full-time job with benefits.
Biographical details: Gordon chairs the Assembly's Committee on Rules and serves on the Budget committee.
Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside)
Annual public pension: $45,566
Government service: Roth is a former major general in the U.S. Air Force.
Biographical details: Roth has turned down pay increases in his Senate salary since his election, so he receives $90,540 annually. He is chairman of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on State Administration and General Government, and the Insurance Committee. He is vice-chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
Sen. James Beall (D-San José)
Annual public pension: $40,320
Government service: Beall is a former member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and former urban planner for the cities of Santa Cruz and Los Gatos.
Biographical details: He is chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, and is a member of the Public Employment and Retirement; Appropriations; Budget and Fiscal Review; and Governance and Finance committees. He also sits on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills)
Annual public pension: $19,140
Government service: Pavley taught in public schools for more than two decades, completing her teaching career in Moorpark before she retired in July 2004.
Biographical details: She is the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee chairwoman, and serves on committees including Budget and Fiscal Review and Governance and Finance. She was also mayor of Agoura Hills.
Assemblyman Kansen Chu (D-San José)
Annual public pension: $18,276
Government service: He worked as an aide to legislators and served seven years on the San José City Council.
Biographical details: He served on the Berryessa Union School Board District and is chairman of the Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media committee. He also serves on the Committee on Labor and Employment and the Jobs, Economic Development and the Economy and Transportation committees.
Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis)
Annual public pension: $11,827
Government service: Wolk served from 1998 to 2002 as an elected member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors before retiring from county service.
Biographical details: She is Senate majority whip and is chairwoman of the Senate Budget Subcommittee and No. 2 on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation. Wolk is the former mayor of Davis.
Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada-Flintridge)
Annual public pension: $8,880
Government service: Liu was a teacher in Richmond public schools, teaching history at the junior and senior high levels. She became a school administrator before retiring in 1996.
Biographical details: She is chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and serves on the Insurance, Public Safety, Human Services and Elections and Constitutional Amendments committees.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica)
Annual public pension: $5,239
Government service: Bloom served for 13 years on the Santa Monica City Council, where he served as mayor three times.
Biographical details: He also served as a volunteer judge pro tem and mediator for Los Angeles County Superior Courts. He is a member of Assembly committees including Budget, Appropriations and Higher Education.
Assemblyman Rocky Chávez (R-Oceanside)
Annual public pension: Requests made by the Times for information about Chávez's annual pension were not answered by Chávez and military representatives.
Government service: Chávez spent more than 28 years as a U.S. Marine, rising to the rank of colonel and serving as chief of staff for the 4th Marine Division.
Biographical details: He is vice chairman of the Assembly Veterans Affairs committee, and sits on the Budget and Joint Legislative Budget committees, among others.
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