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Lawmakers still turn blind eye toward our pension debt

MAY 14, 2024 | by Steven Greenhut | ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Pension retirement savings account

When arguing about whether the Treasury needed to take urgent action to deal with soaring federal debt in the 1980s, the late former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Herb Stein coined Stein’s Law. It was simple and obvious: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

I hate to pick nits with such an esteemed economist, but I’ll offer Greenhut’s Corollary: “Never underestimate politicians’ ability to kick the can down the road.” In 1986, federal debt was $2.1 trillion. In 2024, the debt is $34 trillion. Debt spending of this magnitude cannot go on forever, but it can fester for a long time and cause economic damage in the process. But, yes, it probably will stop eventually.

I thought of Stein’s oft-cited quip when pondering California’s pension crisis. A recent CalMatters report reminds us the state never has gotten its pension debt under control and that Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature keep making the problem worse: “More generous-than-expected raises for California state workers are nudging up the cost of public employee pensions.”

Back to my corollary: The report adds that Newsom “sidesteps the growing cost of CalPERS pensions” by using an accounting gimmick. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System is only 72 percent funded, which means it only has 72 cents on the dollar to pay for the promised pensions – and they are one of the state’s senior obligations. If the state budget ever collapses, government retirees are at the top of the list to get paid...