The $100,000 pension club is growing fast.
Almost 9,000 retirees in the California Public Employees' Retirement System receive at least $100,000 in annual benefits, more than quadruple the number getting that much during 2005, according to a review of CalPERS data.
Collectively, these pensioners will receive about $1.1 billion in benefits this year.
Such payouts are a hot topic as state leaders float competing pension reform plans. Those who want to curtail big pensions say they are a root cause of huge unfunded liabilities - and the growing pension bill presented to taxpayers. Others say large pensions are straw men brandished as a tool to cut the modest benefits of most government workers.
"The outliers are driving the discussion," said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Californians for Retirement Security, a union consortium.
The rapid growth in the number of $100,000 pensions is largely a consequence of enhanced retirement benefits approved by local and state governments during the last decade. Tens of thousands of public safety workers, for instance, can retire at age 50 and get most of their annual salary for life.
Because the enhanced benefits are only a decade old, there's a snowball effect: More six-figure pensioners are entering the system than leaving it.
Government salaries also rose quickly during the last decade, pushing benefits higher.
"That's the other issue: Some folks are being paid disproportionately high salaries," said Brad Barber, a finance professor and pension expert at University of California, Davis.
Six-figure pensions - and pensions of all amounts - could become more common as a tide of workers reaches retirement age. "(It's) certainly linked to the baby boomers retiring," said CalPERS spokesman Brad Pacheco.
Six-figure pensions are not bankrupting the system, or eating up most benefits. They constitute about 2 percent of all CalPERS beneficiaries and about 8 percent of benefit payments. The average annual pension for all who retired last year is $38,000; for those who retired with at least 25 years of service, it's about $61,000.
Additionally, investment losses during the recession affected CalPERS's unfunded liabilities more than the rise in $100,000 pensions, actuarial reports show.
But the public and its elected leaders need to flag big pension payouts, Barber said, especially if the growth of such payouts continues at a rapid pace.
Republicans negotiating with Gov. Jerry Brown have demanded that pension reform be part of any deal to approve his plan to ask voters for state tax extensions. In April, Brown released pension changes he would support, but more substantive changes, including a pension cap, were listed as "under development."
About 70 percent of Californians support capping pensions, according to a recent University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll.
But many six-figure pensioners accrued their benefits honestly, and deserve them, including police officers and firefighters, Maviglio said. "People who put their lives on the line every day deserve a secure retirement," he said.
That caveat could matter greatly. A big chunk of $100,000 pensioners are former public safety workers. Cops and firefighters are such a large presence on the $100,000 pension list that they skew it in a couple of little-known ways -- almost two-thirds of six-figure CalPERS pensioners were employed by local governments, partially a reflection that many cops and firefighters work for cities or counties. Also, 85 percent of the six-figure pensioners in the CalPERS system are men.
But the clearest indication that six-figure pensions will spike again is the sheer number of highly paid workers nearing retirement age.
About 18,000 local public safety and California Highway Patrol officers in the Cal-PERS system were 45 or older in 2009, the latest state figures show. Most can retire at age 50 and get 3 percent of their highest pay for every year they worked, usually up to 90 percent.
Their average pay: $108,000
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)