Cal­i­for­nia law let­ting troops buy CalPERS pen­sions doesn’t work, sol­diers say

Lodi News-Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Adam Ash­ton

SACRA­MENTO — Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard Capt. Steve Sonza thought he found a good deal for his re­tire­ment ear­lier this year. He learned about a pro­gram that would let him buy into CalPERS and se­cure a state­backed pen­sion for life.

“It’s an awe­some re­tire­ment ben­e­fit. It’s one of the best in the coun­try,” Sonza, 38, said.

But Sonza, a mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, soon found what dozens of Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional

Guard mem­bers be­fore him al­ready knew. The pro­gram never pro­vided the ben­e­fit law­mak­ers promised when they wrote a law in 2007 open­ing the Cal­i­for­nia Public Em­ploy­ees’ Re­tire­ment Sys­tem to part-time sol­diers.

His dis­ap­point­ment dates to a law signed by for­mer Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger that cre­ated a new perk for troops in the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard as an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the in­creased pace of their de­ploy­ments since the 2001 ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Cal­i­for­nia has about 21,000 cit­i­zen sol­diers and air­men in the Na­tional Guard. They’re part­time fed­eral em­ploy­ees who are only el­i­gi­ble for a gov­ern­ment re­tire­ment if they ac­cu­mu­late at least 20 years of ser­vice.

They’re paid to train about 40 days a year, and they could be called up for lengthy mis­sions on for­eign de­ploy­ments, re­spond­ing to do­mes­tic nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or car­ry­ing out var­i­ous anti-nar­cotics as­sign­ments at the Mex­ico bor­der and else­where in Cal­i­for­nia.

Law­mak­ers took care not to cre­ate an un­funded prom­ise for the pen­sion fund when they voted to open the Cal­i­for­nia Public Em­ploy­ees’ Re­tire­ment Sys­tem to troops. They wrote the law in a way that would make it cost-neu­tral for tax­pay­ers, re­quir­ing the mil­i­tary ser­vice mem­ber to pay the full cost of fund­ing a re­tire­ment plan.

That’s dif­fer­ent from how state work­ers and lo­cal gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees fund their pen­sions. They share the cost with their em­ploy­ers, with each side putting money ev­ery pay­check to­ward the worker’s re­tire­ment.

De­spite the cost, even a small

CalPERS pen­sion based on part­time mil­i­tary ser­vice ap­pealed to some troops who wanted to lock in an al­ter­nate source of re­tire­ment in­come, ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony given to leg­isla­tive com­mit­tees at the time.

“This bill is a mod­est at­tempt to show sup­port and ap­pre­ci­a­tion” for the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard, the law’s author, Sen. Glo­ria Ne­grete McLeod, D-Los Angeles, wrote at the time.

The law was long on good in­ten­tions, but short on de­tails.

Thirty-three Na­tional Guard mem­bers have at­tempted to en­roll in CalPERS through the pro­gram since 2008, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Guard, but they’ve been un­able to buy into the pen­sion fund.

The Na­tional Guard As­so­ci­a­tion of Cal­i­for­nia con­tends the state Mil­i­tary Depart­ment, which over­sees the Cal­i­for­nia Na­tional Guard, isn’t in­ter­ested in mak­ing the pro­gram work. The as­so­ci­a­tion ad­vo­cated for the law as it moved to Sch­warzeneg­ger’s desk.

“I am dis­ap­pointed that

in the 12 years or so since the (as­so­ci­a­tion) spon­sored CalPers bill became state law the Mil­i­tary Depart­ment has re­fused to en­roll any tra­di­tional sol­dier or air­man in the state re­tire­ment pro­gram as they are au­tho­rized to do so. But I am not sur­prised,” said re­tired Col. John Hara­malis, the group’s leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor.

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