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EDITORIAL: Government on autopilot

Duty-shirking lawmakers about to crash into fiscal reality

California Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed a law unleashing driverless cars on Golden State highways. The autonomous vehicle technology pioneered by Google lets highly sophisticated computer programming take over the tedious duty of navigating automobiles around difficult obstacles, making all the decisions needed to reach the destination. There is no human involvement needed, which is the perfect metaphor for how lawmakers operate.

Instead of taking charge and showing leadership, politicians prefer to pawn off tough decisions to unaccountable agencies. Can't get the votes to enact a cap-and-trade global-warming tax? Just pawn the idea off to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Regulators are more than happy to come up with rules that have the same effect as a law that's too hot for Congress to pass. There's a still more insidious form of legislative buck-passing. The creation of untouchable entitlement programs has put trillions in present and future spending on autopilot.

At the federal level, there is at least $63 trillion in upcoming Medicare and Social Security benefits not covered by any contribution. The money will be spent as a matter of right -- no vote needed. The same thing is happening at other levels of government. In July, Moody's Investment Services completed an analysis of 14,000 state and local pension plans that calculated a total of $2 trillion in unfunded liabilities nationwide. That's triple the amount that these pension programs had previously reported. Politicians simply haven't been honest about how much of the public treasure has already been allocated to meeting the promises government is making today.

The lack of transparency is understandable, given how excessive public-sector deals tend to be. Take the city of Newport Beach, Calif., where 14 full-time municipal lifeguards spend the day lying on one of the country's finest beaches, occasionally being called upon to rescue a wayward surfer. That's hardly a gig requiring hardship pay, but the Association of Newport Beach Ocean Lifeguards wanted to sweeten the deal anyway. They negotiated a $140 annual allowance so each employee could buy himself a new pair of sunglasses. Taxpayers would also ensure an unlimited supply of sunscreen and lip balm, provide complimentary gym membership and more. The kicker is each of these full-time government employees also pulled down six-figure compensation packages -- the top earner scoring more than $200,000.

Such salaries are used to calculate defined-benefit pension payouts, meaning taxpayers can be stuck making six-figure payments to superannuated ex-lifeguards for decades. According to the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, California's pension liabilities add up to $500 billion -- one-fifth the national total. Despite the looming crisis, the best the state's Democratic-dominated legislature could do was adopt a measure taking effect Jan. 1 that will cap final salary calculations for new hires. The gold-plated packages will continue untouched for all existing employees.

That means the status quo will continue, with lawmakers avoiding their responsibility to take control of the situation. Google's car may be good enough to avoid causing a multi-car pileup on the road, but the same can't be said for the local, state and federal governments. Their fiscal crash is just around the corner.

The Washington Times

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