Published: March 16, 2012
When the city manager of troubled Stockton, Calif., had to tell city council members why it was on track to become the biggest American city yet to go bankrupt, it took hours to get through the list.
Stockton, Calif., which must pay $30 million in annual pension costs, which it is told it cannot cut even in bankruptcy.
There was the free health care for retirees, the unpaid parking tickets, the revenue bonds without enough revenue to pay them. On it went, a grim drumbeat of practically every fiscal malady imaginable, except an obvious one: municipal pensions. Stockton is spending some $30 million a year to pay for them, but it has less than 70 cents set aside for every dollar of benefits its workers expect.
Some public pension experts think they know why pensions were not on the city manager’s list. They see the hidden hand of California’s giant state pension system, known as Calpers, which administers hundreds of billions of dollars in retirement obligations for municipalities across the state.
Calpers does not want cities like Stockton going back on their promises, and it argues that the state Constitution bars any reduction in pensions — and not just for people who have already retired. State law also forbids cuts in the pensions that today’s public workers expect to earn in the future, Calpers says, even in cases of severe fiscal distress. Workers at companies have no comparable protection.
Stockton is in the midst of a mediation process with its creditors that will determine by the end of June whether it will file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which would allow the city to negotiate reductions in its debt in court.
For Calpers, the prospect of a California city in Federal Bankruptcy Court portends a potential test of the constitutional mandate that federal law trumps state laws — in particular, the state laws that protect public workers’ pensions in California. Such a challenge could blow a hole in what experts consider the most airtight pension protections anywhere.
“Obviously, what Calpers wants is that it doesn’t come up in the process, which I think is ridiculous,” said David A. Skeel Jr., a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who writes frequently on bankruptcy. “My view is that even the California Constitution is subsidiary to federal bankruptcy law.”
As the United States population ages and more and more public workers qualify for retirement, the cost of their pensions is growing fast, turning into a major drag on many local governments’ finances. The pension contributions that cities must make every year are rising, but their revenue, which often depends on property taxes, is not keeping up. Taxed-out residents, many of whom have lost their own pensions in the private sector, are unwilling to pay more. In tax-averse California in particular, where every tax increase must be put to a vote, officials are running out of options and some are considering bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy in America is a collective process, where creditors of a distressed company or municipality come together under court oversight and negotiate a plan to share the losses equitably, for the sake of the greater good. Some creditors may stand more toward the front of the line and others at the back, but there isn’t generally one big creditor that gets paid in full without having to get in line at all.
Yet that’s what Calpers appears to be doing.
“They will probably say it’s a statutory right and it can’t be changed by a bankruptcy court,” said James E. Spiotto, a Chapter 9 specialist with the firm of Chapman & Cutler. “I think it’s still subject to some question.”
A spokeswoman for Stockton’s city manager, Connie Cochran, said she could not discuss the city’s dealings with Calpers, citing the confidential mediation process.
When a company with a pension plan goes bankrupt in Chapter 11, it typically stops making most of its required pension contributions, just as it can stop paying many other bills. Some companies, like Northwest Airlines, even declare bankruptcy the day before a pension contribution is due, to save the cash.
Chapter 11 also permits companies to shed their pension obligations completely, if they can convince the bankruptcy judge that’s the only way they can restructure. The federal government, which insures traditional company pensions, then takes over the defunct plan and pays retirees their benefits, up to statutory limits.
There is no such backstop for state or municipal pensions. But cities, until recently, have managed to avoid bankruptcy, so there is almost no precedent for how public pensions will fare in Chapter 9.
Now that is starting to change.