Liljenquist: Michigan is an Example for Pension Reform

Posted by Tracy Grondine on July 19, 2017 at 12:49 PM

The following opinion editorial by RSI President Dan Liljenquist can be read in its entirely at the Detroit Free Press by clicking here.

 

 

Michigan an example for pension reform

Dan Liljenquist, former Utah state Senator, is president

Michigan has been able to accomplish what many other state and local governments only dream of: meaningful pension reform. With recent passage of its teacher pension legislation, and Gov. Rick Snyder signing the measure into law, Michigan lawmakers have taken a critical step to ensure that Michigan will be able to meet its retirement commitments to both its current and retired teachers while creating an innovative plan for new teachers, one that is both fair and sustainable. In doing so, Michigan lawmakers have effectively capped teacher pension liabilities going forward, a move that will pay long-term dividends for the state’s residents.

Pension debt is one of the top challenges impacting state and local governments, and more often than not, it is the education systems and teachers who are hurt the most.  

A quick look across the country in places like California and Chicago reveals that escalating pension costs have become the Pac-Man of school budgets, chewing through essential funding for teachers and classrooms.  

The Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System is $29 billion in debt and only 60% funded. That’s money that should be going toward classrooms, educational programs, student enrichment and qualified teachers.

Fortunately, Michigan lawmakers seized the opportunity to reform the system...(to continue reading, click here).


Underfunding Pensions, a Disturbing Trend

Posted by Tracy Grondine on July 11, 2017 at 9:19 AM

A recently released report by the Society of Actuaries on pension plan contribution indices shows a disturbing trend of U.S. governments significantly underfunding public employee retirement plans. The report studied 160 state and large city public sector pension plans from 2006 to 2014 using contribution indices, which are metrics that compare pension plan contributions to benchmarks that represent the contribution level needed to pay down unfunded liabilities. According to the report:

  • For 130 plans, total unfunded liabilities (as reported by Government Accounting Standards Board guidelines) increased by approximately 150 percent, from $400 billion in 2006 to $1 trillion in 2014, while liabilities increased 47 percent, from $2.5 trillion to $3.7 trillion.
  • While employer contributions for the same 130 plans increased 76 percent, from $48 billion in 2006 to $85 billion in 2014, most of the 160 plans still received insufficient employer contributions to maintain their unfunded liabilities.

When this happens, it’s typically taxpayers who pay the price of the debt through reduced or cut government services (i.e., in Chicago 89 cents of every new dollar for education has gone to teachers’ unfunded pension costs since 2009) and in worst case scenarios, public employees and retirees pay with reduced or cut retirement benefits. Just take a look at what’s happened in Prichard, Ala., Central Falls, R.I., and Loyalton, Calif., when the wells ran dry and governments could no longer pay pension benefits. All could have been avoided if money had been set aside to cover obligations instead of running up unfunded liabilities.

The Retirement Security Initiative believes that state and local governments should fully fund employee benefits so that all retirees and employees get paid what they have earned. Lawmakers have an obligation to ensure that their retirement plans are sustainable and fiscally sound and unfunded liabilities should be paid down over a reasonable time period. 

Michigan is a great example of what happens when lawmakers take responsibility and reform their pension plans. Just last month, Michigan passed significant legislation that transforms the structure of the state’s teachers pensions from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution model, while employing a mechanism that will prevent the future accumulation of unlimited pension debt, thus allowing lawmakers to pay down the state’s $29 billion pension debt over time.

All workers deserve safe and secure retirements and plans should place employees on a path to a secure retirement, regardless of tenure. And it all starts with governments fully funding their pension plans.


New Video Explains Michigan Teacher Pensions

Posted by Tracy Grondine on June 23, 2017 at 3:40 PM

A newly released video from TeacherPensions.org demonstrates just how significant recent passage of Michigan pension reform is to teachers' retirement futures. Legislation to reform Michigan's public school employee pension system passed both the House and Senate last week and is now headed to Governor Snyder to sign into law.

Michigan's teacher pension system was out of touch with the 21st century workforce. Only 20 percent of all new teachers received their full benefits, while 50 percent of new teachers received no benefits at all. Should a teacher change positions, their earned benefits would not carry with them.

But thanks to Michigan lawmakers, the future just got brighter for the state's teachers. Under the reform, future teachers will automatically be enrolled in a competitive, portable and modern defined contribution retirement plan with an option to participate in a hybrid model. This is important because it gives teachers control, freedom and flexibility over their finances and puts them on a path to secure retirement, regardless of tenure. Just as important, Michigan will be able to keep its retirement promises made to current school employees and retirees, neither of which are affected by the legislation.

To learn more about how many of the nation's teachers are negatively impacted by outdated retirement systems, and the significance of Michigan's pension reform, check out the video below.

 

 


Pennsylvania Passes, Signs Pension Reform Into Law

Posted by Tracy Grondine on June 12, 2017 at 1:49 PM

 

(Surrounded by Pennsylvania legislators, Governor Tom Wolf signs pension reform into law on June 12, 2017)

 

It's a historic day in Pennsylvania as Governor Tom Wolf has signed significant pension reform legislation into law. After years of debate surrounding the issue, the Pennsylvania General Assembly last week passed the reform legislation, SB 1, on strong, bipartisan votes. 

For the past year, RSI has worked alongside Pennsylvania legislative members and stakeholders toward formulating and passing meaningful pension reform that gives workers fair, sustainable and predictable retirement benefits. Last fall, legislation that closely resembled SB 1 fell only a few votes short of legislative passage. But through collaboration and tenacity, efforts this year paid off and legislators were able to push the reform over the finish line. "It’s a job well done and demonstrates to other state and city governments that meaningful pension reform is possible," said RSI CEO Pete Constant in a press statement.

RSI has written numerous times on Pennsylvania’s growing unfunded pension liability, bringing attention to the now infamous Pension Clock, which is located in the Pennsylvania statehouse to remind both lawmakers and taxpayers of the staggering debt. Since we began writing about the issue in February 2016, the pension debt has grown from $63 billion to more than $75 billion (with $14.8 million of debt being added daily). Such significant debt threatens the solvency of public retirement plans and threatens the retirement security of all employees and retirees. As we have observed in other areas of the country, when government pension debt spirals out of control and lawmakers are unable to meet their pension obligations, it is employees and retirees who pay the price with benefit cuts. 

To put the state’s pensions on a sustainable track, the new law will reform Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) and State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) from a defined benefit structure to a system in which future public employees have a choice between three retirement savings options, including two defined benefit/defined contribution (DB/DC) hybrid retirement plans and a defined contribution (DC) retirement plan. The bill does not affect current employees.

Aside from securing the retirement futures of the state's workers and retirees, the reform is expected to save Pennsylvania up to $1.4 billion and reduce the state’s unfunded pension liability by up to $4.2 billion over a reasonable time period.

“RSI believes that all workers deserve safe and secure futures and retirement plans should place employees on a path to a secure retirement, regardless of tenure,” said Constant in the press statement. “Pennsylvania’s pension reform package achieves that goal.”


Is Gov. Brown's Proposal a Remedy for 17 Years of Failure?

Posted by Tracy Grondine on May 16, 2017 at 9:05 PM

Last week California Governor Jerry Brown proposed to double the state's contribution to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) to nearly $12 billion in the next fiscal year. The money would come from California’s Surplus Money Investment Fund, or “Rainy Day” fund, and, according to Brown, would reduce CalPERS' unfunded liabilities, saving the state $11 billion over the next several decades.

Although there are varying thoughts and some very good points on Gov. Brown’s remedy, we commend the Governor for tackling California’s pension fiasco head on and trying to find a solution for what at times seems an improbable situation.

CalPERS is more than $111 billion in debt, which means it is $111 billion short of having enough money to pay pension obligations for government workers and retirees, despite massive injections in payments by state and local governments. If left unchecked, it’s projected that California’s contributions to CalPERS will double from $5.8 billion in 2017 to $9.2 billion in 2023.

As RSI Board Leader Chuck Reed has said, the California system is great at promising pensions, but it is a failure at funding those promises, and the result is 17 years of failure by CalPERS. The first domino fell in 1999, when the state legislature granted retroactive pension payments to retirees, and they have continued to fall since with taxpayers left to pick up the pieces. Those falling dominoes have taken CalPERS from a surplus to a pension debt of more than $100 billion in just 17 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sadly, it's not only CalPERS. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System is just as bad. In 1999, CalSTRS also had a surplus. As of 2016, it was in the hole by $96.7 billion. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            After 17 years of failure, after 17 years of overpromising pension benefits to government employees and underfunding obligations to pension plans, it’s time to act, as  Gov. Brown has done with his latest proposal. This much is clear: CalPERS has had 17 years of failure, and, without action, its debt will only continue to spiral.


Celebrating National Teachers Day

Posted by Tracy Grondine on May 09, 2017 at 9:03 AM

 

Today is a celebration of teachers across the nation. Most of us can likely reflect with gratitude on one or more of our teachers in college, high school and even elementary school who had a profound impact on our learning. As Bill Gates once said, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.” We at RSI certainly agree.

Teaching has always been considered an under-appreciated, under-paid job in comparison to the importance the position holds in helping form and educate a student’s mind, and, in a larger context, to its relation in the continuity of a free society. Sadly, though, as old-school public pension systems across the U.S are continually underfunded, it’s the teachers who are paying the price.

“When governments are dedicating hundreds of millions of additional dollars to pay for market losses, they can’t afford things like teachers,” said RSI Board Member and former Utah Senator Dan Liljenquist last year in Forbes. “When pension costs explode, teachers’ salaries typically become stagnant. In Utah, for example, we typically fund pensions first, healthcare second, and then whatever resources are left over go to salaries. And that’s not the way things should be.”

One needs to look no further than Chicago to see what happens to teachers when pension systems run amok. Just last year, the school district had to lay-off more than 500 teachers and an additional 500 school workers, due in part to rising pension costs coupled with underfunding of the system. In Chicago Public Schools, 89 cents out of every new tax dollar goes to pay pensions, leaving only 11 cents out of every dollar for the rest of education.

Aside from pensions being underfunded, other costly problems can arise for teachers due to the way many pension systems are built and administered. Take for instance Missouri, which uses a ‘three-year rule’ to determine a teacher’s final pension. Under the system, which is shared by many teachers’ pensions throughout the country, all teachers contribute the same percentage of pay annually to the pension fund, but because the pension is based on the last three-years of a teacher’s career, rather than a career-long average, it’s the teachers who get bigger raises toward the end who will earn a larger pension.

Usually it is rural teachers who get the short end of the stick, explained James Shuls, assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Missouri-St. Louis last month in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The poorer school district gives much smaller raises over time,” Shuls explained. “They have a relatively flat salary schedule.” In his latest study, Shul explains that well-funded districts can be more generous in pay, which results in a huge discrepancy in pensions.

Shuls’ latest study will appear this spring in the Journal of Education Finance. He has written about other issues with teacher pensions, including their growing cost and the risk they pose for taxpayers.

For more information on what's eating teachers’ salaries and pensions, check out TeacherPensions.org report, “What Do Pac-Man and Pensions Have in Common?”

 


California Court Should Decide Pension Fate This Year

Posted by Tracy Grondine on April 19, 2017 at 6:08 AM

By Chuck Reed

 

Decision making and management of California’s public pensions should be open, transparent and non-political. Unfortunately, as Judy Lin points out in her recent LA Times article, that’s not been the case. California’s major public pension systems continue to over promise and under fund employee benefits, racking up hundreds of billions of dollars in pension debt, and California’s cities are helpless to do anything about it.

The California Supreme Court will soon have an opportunity to change that paradigm by allowing future benefits for future work to be negotiable. The so called “California Rule” has been used to prevent negotiations over benefits that have not yet been earned, creating a massive obstacle for pension reform to control pension debt. The limits of the California Rule will be decided by the Court in several cases where public employees believe they have a right to spike their benefits above what their salary entitles them to receive.

Learn more here and here.

Chuck Reed, former Mayor of San Jose, is a board member of the Retirement Security Initiative.


RSI Talks Pensions With ALEC's Bob Williams

Posted by Tracy Grondine on April 11, 2017 at 2:43 PM

RSI Interview with Bob Williams, founder and senior fellow of the Freedom Foundation and Senior Fellow with the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Williams was the founder of State Budget Solutions, which is now a project of ALEC.

Underfunded pension systems are one of the biggest challenges facing state and local budgets, resulting in more than $5 trillion in total U.S. pension debt. In an effort to examine how we arrived in this predicament and what steps can be taken going forward to ease the overwhelming financial burden on governments, the Retirement Security Initiative (RSI) will talk with leading fiscal and pension experts to get their opinion and analysis on the funding crises. The below Q&A with Bob Williams, founder and senior fellow of the Freedom Foundation and Senior Fellow with the American Legislative Exchange Council, is the third in our series.

RSI: How did you become interested in the issue of public pensions? 

BW: As a Washington State Legislator (1978-88), I was one of two state legislators out of 147 legislators who took an interest in state pensions and tried to get my fellow legislators interested in pension reform.

 

RSI: During your career of working on state budgetary issues, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the public pension space?

BW: The great unpublicized success of the higher education faculty’s defined contribution system (higher education faculty in most states have access to a DC pension system) and the many legislators ignoring the growing (more than $5.6 trillion unfunded pension liabilities) crisis.  How has that impacted state governments’ fiscal health?  It is a problem that most legislators ignore, but the day of reckoning is rapidly approaching.  For example, in Chicago Public Schools, 89 cents out of every new tax dollar goes to pay pensions, leaving only 11 cents out of every dollar for the rest of education.

 

RSI: Can you talk about your recent publication “Unaccountable and Unaffordable 2016: Unfunded Public Pension Liabilities Near $5.6 Trillion” and what was the biggest surprise for you while conducting your research? 

BW: The biggest surprise is how the problem has grown in the past two years – from $4.7 trillion to $5.6 trillion—an increase of $900 billion in just two years.

 

RSI: In the report, you used three different metrics to gauge the severity of the pension problem across the 50 states: unfunded pension liability per capita, the funded ration and total unfunded pension liability. Can you talk about the first metric, unfunded liabilities per capita, and how that affects taxpayers? 

BW: The longer states delay reforming pensions, the more the unfunded liabilities per capita will rise. For example, in Illinois the per capita unfunded liability has grown from $25,740 in 2014 to $28,200 in 2016 (or $112,800 for a family of four).

 

RSI: We at RSI think that pension debt is the most challenging issue facing state and local governments, yet it’s not on the radar of most taxpayers or public workers. How can we in the pension reform community do a better job communicating the significance of the problem to these constituencies? 

BW: Communicate (perhaps through videos and other tools) what has occurred in Pritchard, Ala.; Central Falls, R.I.; Washington Park, Ill., and Detroit, showing what happened to retirees when those areas went bankrupt.  Have another video showing how K-12 teachers have to work 10 years in Florida and Texas in order to be vested in the pension system, as opposed to National Education Association headquarters staff who have a defined contribution option available to them.

 

RSI: Going forward, what are your recommendations to policy leaders that could help them fix their broken pension systems and begin reining in their state or municipality’s pension debt?  

BW: Reality is not negotiable.  More disclosure is required to all legislators showing the key assumptions (i.e. assuming a 7.5 percent annual rate of return; life expectancies; etc.); switching to a defined contribution system for all new employees; recognizing that if you give state employees the facts you can get them on your side. We saw this occur in Arizona with the pension reforms for police and firefighters. Public employees didn’t create the problems – state legislators and public union officials did.


RSI's Spiotto State & Local Leader of the Week

Posted by Tracy Grondine on April 07, 2017 at 6:45 AM


The George Mason University’s Center on State and Local Leadership has named RSI Board Member James Spiotto State & Local Leader of the Week. Read more from the program's weekly eNews letter below. To learn more about GMU's Center on State and Local Leadership, click here.

State & Local Leader of the Week 

Our State & Local Leader of the Week is James E. Spiotto, a long-time critical advocate for tools to help cities, counties, public school districts, and states to address severe fiscal distress. He is the Managing Director of Chapman Strategic Advisors LLC, a consultancy providing educational and strategic insights to market participants concerning municipal finance topics of interest and the co-owner and co-publisher of MuniNetGuide.com, an online resource specializing in municipal-related research and information concerning state and local government, including public finance, infrastructure, job market data, and economic statistics and analysis.

Mr. Spiotto played the pivotal role in the enactment of the municipal bankruptcy reforms signed into law by former President Ronald Reagan in 1988—he has a long and storied career representing municipalities, including testifying both in federal bankruptcy courts and before the United States Senate and House Judiciary Committees in conjunction with the amendments to the Bankruptcy Code involving Municipal Bankruptcy. Jim has contributed significantly to thought leadership around municipal defaults and bankruptcy, including co-authoring the volume The Law of State and Local Government Debt Financing (Thompson West), authoring chapters on municipal defaults and bankruptcy in The Handbook of Municipal Bonds (Sylvan Feldstein and Frank Fabozzi, editors, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), and authoring a chapter on financial emergencies: default and bankruptcy in the Oxford Handbook of State and Local Government Finance (Robert D. Ebel and John E. Peterson, editors).

Mr. Spiotto is also an author of Municipalities in Distress?, published by Chapman and Cutler LLP and available from Amazon.com and Primer on Municipal Debt Adjustment, published by Chapman and Cutler LLP and available upon request from the firm. In May 2014, the National Federation of Municipal Analysts honored Jim with an award for his contributions as a thought leader within the municipal bond industry: he was recognized for his “prominent voice” on the topic of municipal bankruptcy and his years of groundbreaking research and analysis that have long aided state and local leaders on the critical intricacies of Chapter 9 bankruptcy.


Celebrate National Employee Benefits Day

Posted by Tracy Grondine on April 03, 2017 at 6:28 AM

 

Today is National Employee Benefits Day. Sponsored by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, the day is all about beefing up employee benefits communications. At RSI, we think retirement benefit plans should be open and transparent, and funding levels and risks fully disclosed and communicated to all participants.

We are reminded of the 200 retirees of the LA Works consortium who were recently blindsided when they learned their pensions would be slashed due to low funding. What is currently happening with the consortium’s retirees is due to the pension plan being systematically underfunded, while employees were left in the dark. Retirees now question how after paying into the pension fund for up to 30 years employees were never made aware of the risks.  

Growing pension costs are threatening the solvency of public employee retirement plans, putting at risk the hard-earned savings of many workersyet many employees aren’t made aware of the impending disaster. RSI believes that all workers deserve safe and secure futures and retirement plans should place employees on a path to a secure retirement. Communicating with employees and retirees about their retirement plans would go a long way toward this goal.

Check out the National Employee Benefits Day site, where you can learn more about employee benefit communications and how you can take a bite out of benefits communication.