Transparency Website Shows True Cost of Unionized Government in California

In light of the strong public policy supporting transparency in government, an individual’s expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector.
– Excerpt from California Supreme Court Ruling, 8-27-2007, IFPTE v. Superior Court

Today the California Public Policy Center launched what is the largest online payroll and pension database, searchable by name, downloadable via spreadsheet, ever compiled for active and retired employees of California’s state and local governments. Do you want to see just how much California’s public servants are costing taxpayers? Go to and have a look.

The database, created in partnership with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, has been nearly a year in the making and provides information not available anywhere else. For example, the database includes CalPERS pension records, including not only the participant’s name, pension, and other retirement benefits, but also their year of retirement and years of service. Having this information is necessary to understand just how generous public sector pensions are, because the “average service life” of public servants in California is only around 20 years. And if you work a normal full-length career? Buried on page 169 of CalPERS FYE 6-30-2013 Annual Report is the answer – after 30+ years the average pension is $60,312 per year.

The real shockers, however, are in the individual examples. On the Transparent California website, click on “All Pensions – 2012” and view the results. Three retired public servants collected pensions of over $500,000! Try your hand at Excel – click on “Download all Pension data for 2012” and sort by amount. The $200,000 pension club now has a respectable showing at 582 members. And the much vaunted $100,000 “pension club” now has 31,527 members. But why stop there?

The maximum Social Security benefit is currently a whopping $31,704 per year. For that you have to work until you’re 67 years old, and contribute 12.4% of your total compensation – presumably for over 40 years. How many retired state and local government workers – that we know of – collect twice that much? Transparent California’s data shows 140,461 retirees collecting $63,408 or more in pensions during 2012. Since the “average service life” of a government pensioner is 20 years, very few worked 40 years before retiring.

If you just stopped paying any of these retirees more than twice the maximum Social Security benefit, you would save California’s taxpayers at least $3.5 billion per year.

But generous pensions used to be compensation for poor salaries. Remember those days? Those days are done.

Transparent California also reveals the pay and benefits received by active state and local government employees in California. Does it surprise anyone to learn that an orthopedic surgeon employed by Kern County earned over $1.0 million in 2012, or that two University of California employees both earned over $900,000? What about the fact that 114 employees earned over a half-million? Is this what public service is supposed to entail? Are these examples of the career sacrifices that justify such generous pensions? What about the 396 public employees in California who pulled down a Presidential $400,000+ compensation package in 2012, or the 2,201 who made $300,000+? And how would Joe-the-Plumber feel about the 25,885 public servants in California whose pay package exceeded $200,000 in 2012?

We might add this almost as an afterthought – but for completeness here it is: 227,059 public employees in California collected $100,000+ compensation packages in 2012.

It is easy to look at these numbers and suggest they are outliers. After all, what about the average pay and benefits for California’s public sector workers? The California Public Policy Center took a good look at averages using the comprehensive pay and benefit data for 2012 recently released by the California State controller’s office on their website “Government Compensation in California.” In a study published last week entitled “How Much Do California’s State, City and County Workers Really Make?,” the part-time records were eliminated from the pool of data in order to determine averages for full-time workers. The results, entirely consistent with the data independently acquired by the Transparent California project, showed the following compensation averages, by entity, by category of pay, and split between public safety and miscellaneous employees:

Average Compensation, Public Safety vs. Miscellaneous Employees – 2012


It is easy to get so familiar with these numbers that they start to lose their impact. Stepping back for a moment, consider this: The base pay for state workers – the lowest paid of any category, exceeds the average 2012 household income in California, $65,211 to $58,328. The pay and benefits for miscellaneous state workers, $90,402 – again the lowest category – exceeds the average household income in California by 55%. At the other extreme, the average public safety employee’s pay and benefits in California’s cities, $170,104, is nearly three times the average household income in California. The average CalPERS pension, for any recently retired participant who has worked 30+ years, also exceeds the average household income in California, $60,312 to $58,328. Shall we discuss time off with pay – something that doesn’t show up in the data? The 12 (or more) paid holidays and personal days, plus the four weeks (or more) of annual paid vacation days off for veteran workers, or the common “9/80” program whereby you work 9 hour days for 9 days then get every second Friday off as “comp time” with pay?

It is extremely unlikely that those many public servants who are not overpaid in California’s state and local government service will be embarrassed by the disclosures on Transparent California. But the averages, and the plain excess that shows anywhere above the median, reveal an out-of-control government that has put its own self-interest above the people it serves. Hopefully this data, transparent and very personal, will achieve a higher purpose, to help citizens realize that higher taxes or lower services are not their only choices. And maybe it will also stimulate a discussion regarding policies that would actually help to lower the cost of living in California.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center

14 replies
  1. Avatar
    Laszlo says:

    Love your story but please include the state income tax effect when you compare public non-taxable income to taxable private income. If we assume a 10% tax rate the calculation is dollar amount/ 1- tax rate. A person earning 500,000 tax free is equivalent to taxable income of 555,555 (500,000/.90).

    Furthermore, the Net present value of those stream of payments or going to approach a billion (yes a billionaire in the government)

  2. Avatar
    SeeSaw says:

    Public, non-taxable income? What is that? The normal retirement income of public pensioners in CA is taxed just like any other income. The only way for public pensioners in CA to escape state income taxes is to move to a state that has no personal state income tax. The private-sector workers in those tax-free states pay no state income tax either.

    As far as this article goes, it is an opinion piece. Op-ed writers have to make a living too, right? If you look me up in that database, you will see that I had 36.4 years service-credit, and my base salary at the time of retirement was less than $50,000. I can assure you that there are a lot more pensioners like me than there are those that get six figures. And that is a fact!

  3. Avatar
    Laszlo says:

    Your personal earnings aren’t relevant. I am making a comparison of taxable income to nontaxable. Assuming a tax rate of 10%, non-taxable income of 55,555 is the equivalent 50,000 taxable. (50,000 / .90

    How much did you pay in income taxes on your salary when you worked for the government?

  4. Avatar
    SeeSaw says:

    It was so long ago, I can’t give you an exact figure. But, I was subject to withholding, according to the charts put out by the IRS and the State, just like everyone else. Your first post seems to take the attitude that those on pubic pensions do not pay the same taxes as everyone else–I just wanted to set you straight. Maybe my earnings don’t mean much to you, but your ilk likes to put out the general opinion that all public retirees live the life of Riley. Not true. We are human; we have the same economic problems as everyone else; we are everyone!

  5. Avatar
    irishgrl says:

    Bullshit Alert!
    This site and it’s related links are all tied to Right-Wing EXTREMISTS (such as the Koch brothers)who are spending HUGE amounts of money to demonize Unions! Don’t believe me? Google it:

    Both the Reason Foundation and Pacific Research Institute are allied with the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has been writing corporatist model legislation for about 30 years. More locally, however, the nexus for pension-cutting is the Tustin-headquartered California Public Policy Center, a conservative nonprofit led by Ed Ring, who worked to promote the anti-union Proposition 32 last year. CPPC’s advisors include Marcia Fritz and Jack Dean; its president is Mark W. Bucher who helped qualify and pass 2000’s Proposition 22, which effectively banned same-sex marriage in California. (Bucher is also a board member of Family Action, a rightwing Orange County political action committee.) Another CPPC board member, Robert Loewen, also serves as president of the ultraconservative Lincoln Club of Orange County.)

    According to Wiki:

    According to Mother Jones Magazine, Koch Industries’ Political Action Committee contributed the second largest donation to Scott Walker’s 2010 campaign for governor of Wisconsin. It donated $43,000, second in size only to PAC donations of $43,125 from Wisconsin realtors and Wisconsin home builders.[49] The maximum contribution allowed by law is $43,128.[64] That contribution amounted to less than one half of one percent of Walker’s campaign total [65] because of the limits placed on campaign contributions.[64] Most support for Walker actually was in the form of independent expenditures estimated at $3 million from Americans for Prosperity.[66] After Walker took office, he and the Republican representatives in the Wisconsin House enacted legislation that placed limitations on collective bargaining by public employees.

    This from SourceWatch:

    The California Public Policy Center is a right-wing pressure group based in California. Founded in June 2010, it is a state affiliate of the $83 million right-wing State Policy Network (SPN), a web of state pressure groups that denote themselves as “think tanks” and drive a right-wing agenda in statehouses nationwide.[1] See SPN Members for more.
    Although SPN’s member organizations claim to be nonpartisan and independent, the Center for Media and Democracy’s in-depth investigation, “EXPOSED: The State Policy Network — The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government,” reveals that SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)-backed corporate agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders.[2]
    In response to CMD’s report, SPN Executive Director Tracie Sharp told national and statehouse reporters that SPN affiliates are “fiercely independent.” Later the same week, however, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer caught Sharp in a contradiction. In her article, “Is IKEA the New Model for the Conservative Movement?,” the Pulitzer-nominated reporter revealed that, in a recent meeting behind closed doors with the heads of SPN affiliates around the country, Sharp “compared the organization’s model to that of the giant global chain IKEA.” She reportedly said that SPN “would provide ‘the raw materials,’ along with the ‘services’ needed to assemble the products. Rather than acting like passive customers who buy finished products, she wanted each state group to show the enterprise and creativity needed to assemble the parts in their home states. ‘Pick what you need,’ she said, ‘and customize it for what works best for you.'” Not only that, but Sharp “also acknowledged privately to the members that the organization’s often anonymous donors frequently shape the agenda. ‘The grants are driven by donor intent,’ she told the gathered think-tank heads. She added that, often, ‘the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen.'”[3]
    A set of coordinated fundraising proposals obtained and released by The Guardian in early December 2013 confirm many of these SPN members’ intent to change state laws and policies, referring to “advancing model legislation” and “candidate briefings.” These activities “arguably cross the line into lobbying,” The Guardian notes.[4]

  6. Avatar
    sawsee says:

    government employees don’t pay income tax. if you think of streams of money, tax dollars flow up from people who make a profit and living to fund government. government doesn’t produce anything so the “taxes” levied upon its employees is more of a withholding for the cost of operations. this money, while it seems like a theft from the income earner, also goes into the pension system. so you government employees are getting huge benefits from the marginal “taxes” you “pay.” I don’t like using quotes when not necessary, but seesaw needs to realize that he’s not really paying taxes.

  7. Avatar
    Glenn Goodman says:

    The ultra wealthy want our pensions and God bless you for helping them rob us of them. I think it very pigish of the working class to think that their pathetic desire to retire in comfort, is more important than the real needs of the wealthy to “have it all.”

    Thank you for helping them help themselves to our retirement, and thus win their all important game.

  8. Avatar
    John Slater says:

    You’re kidding, right? The average pension for a retired state or local government employee who retired in recent years – after benefits were enhanced – and who worked 30 years or more – excuse me, gee, you have to work 30 years – is well over $60,000 per year. The MAXIMUM Social Security benefit is barely $30,000 per year, and to do that you have to have earned a six-figure income and worked 43 years. This is grotesquely unfair and is bankrupting our cities and counties. And those pension funds fuel Wall Street billionaires. The pension funds are the biggest source of money going into private equity funds and hedge funds. You are naive, misinformed, and biased. Take another look. Rescuing and improving Social Security is what we should be fighting for, along with putting all public employees into Social Security, instead giving them something twice as good that we can’t possibly afford.

  9. Avatar
    Glenn Goodman says:

    You’re right John, Social Security is very stingy which is why it has a 2 trillion dollar + surplus. You also make a good point that when wall street funds manage those dollars, they help themselves to massive amounts. I agree that we should be improving SS.

    However, the attack on pensions is a way to balance the deficits, which are basicaly unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy, and thus a transfer of wealth upward. The real problem is that we are not paid enough, while working, or in retirement. The reason for that is that all gains are going to the wealthy while wages stagnate or flat out disappear.

    The real solution is to re-enact the charter requirements of the founders and give some of these corporations the corporate death penalty when so richly deserved.

    When FDR wanted to strengthen unions to bring up wages, the wealthy sang the same song about how it would destroy industry and kill the economy. Instead it led to what is refered to now as the great prosperity. High tax rates on the wealthy kept that prosperity sustained, and I was lucky enough to grow up during those times. We have let them chip away at all of that and now we are back into boom and sustained bust.

    This is why they were called robber barrons. Stop helping them John.

  10. Avatar
    Lone Wolf says:

    But Right Wingers lie. If you don’t like other people making a living just because you are a loser who gave up your benefits, then *piss” off.

  11. Avatar
    Eric Thomas says:

    Numbers Don’t Lie, right??? Go ahead and take a look at my income on the charts… look at the line items. Unless you’re brain dead you’ll be scratching your head, too. How can anyone use these numbers for anything with even a SHRED of credibility. These same backwards calculations are smothering the middle class. DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH, otherwise your numbers are wrong and you’re just “spreading the ignorance” and pretty much embarrassing yourself as a writer. (Or maybe that never mattered to you…)

    OK, OK, OK… now I know you haters are all wound up because I earned over 6 figures (GASP!) I’ll bet you didn’t think to ask how many hours I worked each week in 2013… Do the math on 98.1 hours per week (with time-and-a-half after 40) at your salary and see how it stacks up. Keep in mind that the city saved 10% on my overtime compensation by not having to pay benefits for another employee to do my job. Don’t be upset because I love my job and am not afraid to work hard. BTW- Happily married to my first and only wife, thank you. My kids are both excelling in high school sports and honor role students. Although I’m often not home in the evenings each night we say grace at dinner (over the phone). I do a job that directly benefits my fellow man and it feels great. Somehow I think there are politicians and lawyers all over this good land who want to share this same stage with me out of jealousy in the name of “protecting the taxpayers”. Well, that’s just emmarassing…

    Don’t be so quick to share how little you really know…

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