Public Plunderers

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Plundering California

by Steven Greenhut by Steven Greenhut Recently by Steven Greenhut: Watch Who You Call Extremist

The economy is struggling, the unemployment rate is high, and many Americans are struggling to pay the bills, but one class of Americans is doing quite well: government workers. Their pay levels are soaring, they enjoy unmatched benefits, and they remain largely immune from layoffs, except for some overly publicized cutbacks around the margins. To make matters worse, government employees — thanks largely to the power of their unions — have carved out special protections that exempt them from many of the rules that other working Americans must live by. California has been on the cutting edge of this dangerous trend, which has essentially turned government employees into a special class of citizens.

When I recently appeared on Glenn Beck’s TV show to discuss California’s dreadful fiscal situation, I mentioned that in Orange County, where I had been a columnist for the Orange County Register, the average pay and benefits package for firefighters was $175,000 per year. After the show, I heard from viewers who couldn’t believe the figure, but it’s true. Firefighters, like all public-safety officials in California, also receive a gold-plated retirement plan: a defined-benefit annual pension that offers 90 percent or more of the worker’s final year’s pay, guaranteed for the rest of his life (and the life of his spouse).

Government employees use various scams to boost their already generous benefits, which include fully paid health care and cost-of-living adjustments. The Sacramento Bee coined the term “chief’s disease,” for example, to refer to the 82 percent (in 2002) of chief’s-level employees at the California Highway Patrol who discovered a disabling injury about one year before retiring. That provides an extra year off work, with pay, and shields 50 percent of their final retirement pay from taxes. Most of these disabilities stem from back pain, knee pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and the like — not from taking bullets from bad guys. The disability numbers soared after CHP disbanded its fraud unit.

As I document in my new book, Plunder!, government employees of all stripes have manipulated the system to spike their pensions. Because California bases pensions for employees on their final year’s salary, some workers move to other jurisdictions for just that final year to increase their pay and thus the pension. Even government employees convicted of on-the-job crimes continue to collect benefits. Municipalities have adopted Defined Retirement Option Plans, or DROPs, in which the employee earns his salary and his full defined-benefit retirement pay at the same time, with the retirement pay going into an account payable upon actual retirement. And as average Americans work longer to sustain themselves, public employees can retire in their early fifties with their plush benefits.

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Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register. He is the author of the book, Abuse of Power, and his latest, Plunder!. Visit his blog.

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