In light of the strong public policy supporting transparency in government, an individual’s expectation of privacy in a salary earned in public employment is significantly less than the privacy expectation regarding income earned in the private sector. – Excerpt from California Supreme Court Ruling, 8-27-2007, IFPTE v. Superior Court

This week the California Public Policy Center launched what is the largest online payroll and pension database, searchable by name, downloadable via spreadsheet, ever compiled for active and retired employees of California’s state and local governments. Do you want to see just how much California’s public servants are costing taxpayers? Go to and have a look.

The database, created in partnership with the Nevada Policy Research Institute, has been nearly a year in the making and provides information not available anywhere else. For example, the database includes CalPERS pension records, including not only the participant’s name, pension, and other retirement benefits, but also their year of retirement and years of service. Having this information is necessary to understand just how generous public sector pensions are, because the “average service life” of public servants in California is only around 20 years. And if you work a normal full-length career? Buried on page 169 of CalPERS FYE 6-30-2013 Annual Report is the answer – after 30+ years the average pension is $60,312 per year.

The real shockers, however, are in the individual examples. On the Transparent California website, click on “All Pensions – 2012” and view the results. Three retired public servants collected pensions of over $500,000! Try your hand at Excel – click on “Download all Pension data for 2012” and sort by amount. The $200,000 pension club now has a respectable showing at 582 members. And the much vaunted $100,000 “pension club” now has 31,527 members. But why stop there?

The maximum Social Security benefit is currently a whopping $31,704 per year. For that you have to work until you’re 67 years old, and contribute 12.4% of your total compensation – presumably for over 40 years. How many retired state and local government workers – that we know of – collect twice that much? Transparent California’s data shows 140,461 retirees collecting $63,408 or more in pensions during 2012. Since the “average service life” of a government pensioner is 20 years, very few worked 40 years before retiring.

If you just stopped paying any of these retirees more than twice the maximum Social Security benefit, you would save California’s taxpayers at least $3.5 billion per year.

But generous pensions used to be compensation for poor salaries. Remember those days? Those days are done.

Transparent California also reveals the pay and benefits received by active state and local government employees in California. Does it surprise anyone to learn that an orthopedic surgeon employed by Kern County earned over $1.0 million in 2012, or that two University of California employees both earned over $900,000? What about the fact that 114 employees earned over a half-million? Is this what public service is supposed to entail? Are these examples of the career sacrifices that justify such generous pensions? What about the 396 public employees in California who pulled down a Presidential $400,000+ compensation package in 2012, or the 2,201 who made $300,000+? And how would Joe-the-Plumber feel about the 25,885 public servants in California whose pay package exceeded $200,000 in 2012?

We might add this almost as an afterthought – but for completeness here it is: 227,059 public employees in California collected $100,000+ compensation packages in 2012.

It is easy to look at these numbers and suggest they are outliers. After all, what about the average pay and benefits for California’s public sector workers? The California Public Policy Center took a good look at averages using the comprehensive pay and benefit data for 2012 recently released by the California State controller’s office on their website “Government Compensation in California.” In a study published last week entitled “How Much Do California’s State, City and County Workers Really Make?,” the part-time records were eliminated from the pool of data in order to determine averages for full-time workers. The results, entirely consistent with the data independently acquired by the Transparent California project, showed the following compensation averages, by entity, by category of pay, and split between public safety and miscellaneous employees:

Average Compensation, Public Safety vs. Miscellaneous Employees – 2012

20140131_CA-Gov-Pay_Table3-bIt is easy to get so familiar with these numbers that they start to lose their impact. Stepping back for a moment, consider this: The base pay for state workers – the lowest paid of any category, exceeds the average 2012 household income in California, $65,211 to $58,328. The pay and benefits for miscellaneous state workers, $90,402 – again the lowest category – exceeds the average household income in California by 55%. At the other extreme, the average public safety employee’s pay and benefits in California’s cities, $170,104, is nearly three times the average household income in California. The average CalPERS pension, for any recently retired participant who has worked 30+ years, also exceeds the average household income in California, $60,312 to $58,328. Shall we discuss time off with pay – something that doesn’t show up in the data? The 12 (or more) paid holidays and personal days, plus the four weeks (or more) of annual paid vacation days off for veteran workers, or the common “9/80” program whereby you work 9 hour days for 9 days then get every second Friday off as “comp time” with pay?

It is extremely unlikely that those many public servants who are not overpaid in California’s state and local government service will be embarrassed by the disclosures on Transparent California. But the averages, and the plain excess that shows anywhere above the median, reveal an out-of-control government that has put its own self-interest above the people it serves. Hopefully this data, transparent and very personal, will achieve a higher purpose, to help citizens realize that higher taxes or lower services are not their only choices. And maybe it will also stimulate a discussion regarding policies that would actually help to lower the cost of living in California.

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Public Policy Center