By Chris Reed.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call for his state’s biggest government pension fund to stop new investments in fossil-fuel companies and phase out existing investments is likely to lead to renewed calls for the Golden State’s two massive pension funds – the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System – to do the same.
The Common Fund – New York’s pension fund for state and local public sector employees – has $200 billion in holdings. Cuomo, a Democrat who is expected to run for president in 2020, said it was time to craft a “de-carbonization roadmap” for the fund, which “remains heavily invested in the energy economy of the past.”
New York City Comptroller Scott Stinger agreed with Cuomo and called for changes in the investment policies of the city’s five pension funds, with holdings of about $190 billion.
The announcements were hailed on social media as a reflection of the mission statement of the 2015 Paris Accord outlining international efforts to address global warming.
It’s possible Brown could use his State of the State speech later this month to reveal his call for CalPERS and CalSTRS climate-change divestment. The pension giants have already been forced to end investments in coal companies because of a 2015 law signed by the governor, selling off shares worth less than $250 million, a tiny fraction of their overall portfolios.
But selling off stakes in energy companies would be a much more impactful event. Giant firms like ExxonMobil are among the most common holdings of pension funds around the world.
Some unions worry divestment will hurt CalPERS finances
And while the California Democratic Party has been largely unified behind Brown’s and the state Legislature’s efforts dating back to 2006 to have California lead the fight against global warming, such unanimity is unlikely should Brown follow Cuomo’s lead because some public employee unions are worried about divestment damaging the finances of CalPERS and CalSTRS.
As of July, CalPERS had $323 billion in assets and said it was 68 percent funded – meaning it had about $150 billion in unfunded liabilities. As of March, CalSTRS had $202 billion in assets and said it was 64 percent funded, leaving unfunded liabilities of about $100 billion.
CalPERS’ steady increase in rates it charges local agencies to provide pensions and the heavy costs facing school districts because of the Legislature’s 2014 CalSTRS’ bailout have taken a heavy toll on government budgets.
Corona Police Lt. Jim Auck, treasurer of the Corona Police Officers Association, has testified to the CalPERS board on several occasions, imploring members to focus on making money with investments, not making political statements.
According to a July account in the Sacramento Bee, Auck said public safety is hurt when police departments must spend ever-more money on pensions.
“The CalPERS board has a fiduciary responsibility to the membership to deliver the best returns possible,” Auck testified. “Whatever is delivering the return they need, that’s where they need to put our money.”
The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents 12,000 state maintenance workers, has taken the same position, according to the Bee.
In New York, Gov. Cuomo also is not assured of success. The sole trustee of the Common Fund is State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. While he agreed to work with Cuomo in establishing a committee to consider possible changes in its investment strategies, his statement pointedly emphasized that there were no present plans to change the fund’s approach to energy stocks.
While DiNapoli cited his support for reducing global warming and the Paris Accord, his statement concluded with a sentence emphasizing his priorities: “I will continue to manage the pension fund in the long-term best interests of our members, retirees and the state’s taxpayers.”