Battle lines sharpened Thursday over California's public pensions with the release of a new report that concludes pay and benefit packages for public workers are better than those for their counterparts in the private sector.
Commissioned by pension overhaul advocates poised to seek changes, the report drew immediate fire from public employee unions, which have muscled up to fight the emerging pension wars.
The two-part study, released by the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, also cautions that public pension obligations threaten to crowd out money for public services.
The foundation, headed by longtime pension change advocate Marcia Fritz, has proposed several pension cost-cutting ideas, including a cap on pension payouts, higher employee contributions and higher retiree health premiums. The proposals would affect both current workers and future hires.
While Fritz has yet to offer the changes for potential voter consideration, former Fair Oaks Assemblyman Roger Niello has submitted an initiative, and another group, California Pension Reform, expects to have its own plan for the ballot.
Capitol Matrix Consulting, the Sacramento-based firm that researched the study for Fritz, estimated the impact of those proposals on various employees, based on length of service and whether they are safety or miscellaneous workers. Nearly every scenario envisions deep cuts to employee benefits and employer costs.
Steve Maviglio, spokesman for union coalition Californians for Secure Retirement, blasted the report, its authors and the foundation. "The report is a political document that relies on outdated and skewed data that provides an inaccurate view of retirement benefits for public employees," he said in a statement.
The coalition has become a leading public pension defender in the last few months since hiring Maviglio, former Gov. Gray Davis' press secretary, to speak up for civil service workers.
On Wednesday, for example, he assembled a "pension truth squad" of everyday public employees and retirees on the Capitol's west steps, aiming to frame the pension debate as a story of everyday people getting by on modest retirements.
That same day, the coalition launched a new website, DontScapegoatUs.com, which skewers pension critics. Fritz's picture is one of eight figures fitted with Photoshopped goat horns and ridiculed for "blaming teachers, firefighters, peace officer and other public employees for the state's budget woes."
After the foundation released the study, CalPERS CEO Anne Stausboll said in a press release that the fund is reviewing the report, but "what we have seen reported raises significant policy and legal questions."
Capitol Matrix, co-founded by former Finance Department Director Mike Genest, looked only at what employers pay for benefits, not what employees contribute.
It echoes some of the public pension warnings in a controversial February report by the state's Little Hoover Commission, although Genest took care to strike a neutral tone during a Thursday teleconference with reporters.
"I don't know what the right retirement system is," he said.
Comparing public sector and private sector compensation is difficult, study co-author Jay Peters said, because so many government jobs have no private-side counterpart. The new study focused on comparable state and private jobs using federal statistics, Kaiser Family Foundation health benefits figures, U.S. Chamber of Commerce data, retirement information from large employers and state union contracts.
A 45-year-old California state employee halfway through a 30-year career making $60,000 per year – $5,000 less than a private sector counterpart – receives on average $46,492 in health, retirement and other benefits, for total compensation of $106,492, according to the study.
The private-sector worker receives, on average, $31,737 in benefits for $96,737 in total compensation.
"We were trying to capture a midrange employee," said Peters. "Our purpose was to model the impact on the employer."
The foundation and Capitol Matrix plan to release a third part of the study that looks in more detail at the fiscal impact of various proposals to lower public employee compensation costs. The date of its release hasn't been announced.