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