Posted by Jeffrey Brown on Jun 4, 2012
Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy)
After a week of legislative wrangling that had more twists and turns than Hawaii’s famous “Road to Hana,” the Illinois General Assembly failed to come to agreement last week on a pension reform package in time for yesterday’s May 31 deadline. As a result, they will return to Springfield – possibly this week – for a special session facing an even larger hurdle for passing reform legislation: by Illinois law, bills passed after May 31 require a three-fifths vote rather than a simple majority.
Agreement fell apart over the issue of who should pay for the “normal cost” of future public pension accruals. “Downstate” lawmakers objected to shifting all of the costs onto school districts, public universities and community colleges on the grounds that this would lead to higher property taxes to fund teacher pensions and do grave damage to the ability of our university system to compete for academic talent. Once Democratic Governor Quinn agreed to pull this cost-shifting out of the bill, Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan withdrew his support of the bill.
As I wrote this past Wednesday, one of the grave concerns I have about the leading proposals is that so many of our elected officials seem perfectly content to shift all of the costs onto universities and school districts while maintaining legislative control over the design of the benefits package. This is a mistake on so many levels. The separation of responsibility and control is a recipe for fiscal shenanigans. It is also highly disrespectful of the employer-employee relationship that Bob Rich and I wrote about in our pension reform proposal earlier this year.
Although I still like the plan that Bob Rich and I put out, it seems clear that the General Assembly has gone another route. But given that they are stuck on the cost-shifting issue, I thought it might be useful to put forth a more radical proposal that would respect the constitutional constraints, appropriately align the incentives of all the affected parties, respect the employer/employee relationship, and still save the state billions. Perhaps most importantly from a political perspective, it might overcome the cost-shifting stalemate, because it shifts the costs but offers something very valuable in return. This proposal would apply to those institutions – such as school districts, universities and community colleges – that, while public, are not part of the state government apparatus itself.
While “radical,” the idea is deceptively simple. Here it is in 4 simple steps:
1. The state agrees to pay 100% of all pension benefits that have been accrued by public sector retirees and current workers as of 7/1/2013. Whether the state wishes to do this by paying down the amortized unfunded liability, or simply provide the cash as need to pay benefits, is immaterial, so long as they respect the constitutional guarantee and pay it. Not only does this respect the constitution, but it would also be fair to the generations of workers and retirees who consistently paid their share to the pension fund while the politicians enjoyed their “pension funding holidays.”
2. The existing public pension plans – for example, TRS and SURS – are closed to all further accruals as of 7/1/2013. No new benefits will be earned under any of the plans.
3. Going forward, each state employer is given 100% autonomy – free from the shackles of state regulation and political interference – to construct a benefits package that is optimally designed for its own employees. In order to comply with federal law that applies when a state like Illinois opts out of Social Security, each employer would be required to provide a retirement package that is at least as generous as Social Security. Beyond that, it would be up to each employer to determine the optimal mix of wages, pensions, and other employee benefits that would be required to attract, retain, motivate, and manage the retirement of their workers. If similar employers wished to joint together as a group (e.g., all community colleges) to provide a common pension plan, or if unions wanted to provide multi-employer pensions funded by a group of employers, they would be permitted to do this. But if the University of Illinois decided that its needs differed sufficiently from other public universities, they would have the freedom to go their own way.
4. The state would agree to a pre-determined, annual “block grant” (basically, an extra appropriation) to each employer that would start out as an amount equal to the “normal cost” of providing pensions, and would gradually decline to zero over a 20-year period of time. This would slowly shift the entire financial burden of providing pensions from the state to the employers themselves.
In essence, this plan calls for 100% cost-shifting, but with two critical differences relative to the reform package being debated last week. First, and most importantly, it accompanies the cost-shifting with a freedom from political interference. Second, it spreads the cost-shifting out over a much longer period of time (twenty years instead of approximately eight or so) in order to ensure that employers can adapt.
If there is anything I have learned from observing our Illinois state government in action, it is that it cannot relied upon to design a sensible pension package that is fiscally sustainable, credible to employees, and meets the diverse needs of our public employers. So if they are so eager to get out paying for pensions, let’s take this idea all the way – aside from atoning for their past sins by making good on constitutionally guaranteed promises that they have so far failed to fund – let’s have the state get out of the pension business altogether.
Doing so would free employers and employees from being subject to the unpredictable whims of the states’ politicians. And that freedom, it seems to me, is priceless.