Illinois SURS Pension Reform: A Review Two Offsetting Critiques

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Aug 20, 2013

Earlier this year, I co-authored a proposal with four colleagues to reform the Illinois State Universities Retirement System. My motivation for doing so was quite simple: the fiscal crisis facing the state of Illinois is very real, “doing nothing” is not an option, the politicians seemed to be making little headway on a solution, and the ideas that were under consideration appeared to be driven far more by ideology than by concern about good retirement policy and good fiscal policy.  Given that I have spent the past 15 years of my life developing academic, policy and practical expertise on issues related to retirement income security, I thought I owed it to Illinois taxpayers to make a serious attempt to bring some balanced, centrist thinking into the discussion.  My four co-authors brought exceptional expertise in areas of university administration, benefits design, state and local public finance, and other highly relevant topics.  Together, we proposed six specific reforms to the SURS system.

Our “Six Simple Steps” proposal was subsequently endorsed by the Presidents and Chancellors of all of the public universities in Illinois.  It has also received favorable feedback from many participants and retirees. Over the summer, our proposal gained serious political traction when the bicameral, bipartisan pension committee of the Illinois General Assembly began to treat it as a leading possibility for breaking through the political logjam that had stifled prior attempts at reform.

Now that our proposal – which is sometimes referred to by others as the “Universities Plan” or the “IGPA Plan” – has gained traction, the political knives are coming out on both sides of the ideological divide.  This is not surprising: under our proposal, faculty are being asked to contribute more, retirees are being asked to receive less, the universities are being asked to take on greater financial responsibility for future costs, and the state is being put on the hook for paying down the enormous unfunded liability.  There is plenty of pain to go around.

We did not cause the pain, of course.  The pain was caused by many generations Illinois General Assembly members who failed to behave with even a modicum of fiscal responsibility.  We are just asking legislators, participants, retirees and taxpayers to be honest about the severity of the problem and to take meaningful steps to stop the fiscal bleeding.  But, in a highly politicized environment, with billions of dollars at stake, I am not at all surprised that ideologues and interest groups are pulling out their knives and trying to cut down our proposal.

So allow me to let you in on a little secret – I don’t love our proposal either.  A few aspects of it leave a bad taste in my mouth, in the same way that some life-saving medicines do.  However, I honestly consider to be the best – by far – of a wide range of distasteful options.

Let’s be honest: If I lived in a state where the state government was not dysfunctional, where we did not have strictly binding constitutional constraints, and where we could draw up our pension system from a relatively clean slate, I would NOT design a system exactly like the one we are proposing.  Rather, I would commit the state to a credible funding path; I would raise the normal retirement age to be in line with Social Security; I would fully index benefits to inflation and, if needed, pay for it through downward adjustments to initial benefits; and I would align incentives by making the entities responsible for hiring decisions (e.g., the universities) also be responsible for paying the full benefit costs associated with those hiring decisions.  While I am dreaming, I would also require the state to use accounting rules that transparently communicated the real economic cost of pensions, rather than hiding the true costs behind intellectually flawed government accounting standards.  Then again, if I lived in such an ideal world, we probably would not be facing the worst pension funding crisis of any state in the nation, and our proposal would have been unnecessary in the first place.

But we, the residents of Illinois, do not live in such a world.  Rather, we live in a state where for many decades our political leaders have failed to make good on the state’s most basic financial obligations.  As a result, the time has come for us to take our fiscal medicine: everyone must make sacrifices.  Unfortunately, the very constitutional protections that were intended to protect retirees now prevent us from enacting the most sensible reforms (such as raising the retirement age, which nearly every serious analyst agrees is a good idea): instead, we are forced to use second-best policy tools (such as reducing COLAs) simply because they have a better chance of passing constitutional challenge.  And we live in a state where after several unproductive years of debate, various powerful politicians have made it crystal clear that certain types of reform are political “must haves” and others are “cannot haves,” a situation that further narrows the realm of politically feasible options.

With these and other painful realities in mind, my colleagues and I set out to design a plan that made the best of a truly terrible situation.  We settled on a plan that:

  1. Has a reasonable chance (although not guaranteed) of being deemed constitutional;
  2. Has a reasonable chance of being politically feasible (as demonstrated by the recent support the plan has received from the bicameral bipartisan pension commission);
  3. Will substantially improve the state’s long-term fiscal situation;
  4. Preserves a smaller defined benefit (DB) element to recognize that many public workers in Illinois are not in Social Security, but also creates a defined contribution (DC) account, in an attempt to balance the various strengths and weaknesses of the two types of plans and create a better system than the Tier II system in place for new employees;
  5. Improves the retirement security of new employees through more favorable vesting rules (that are also more closely aligned with private sector practice);
  6. Provides real – if imperfect – inflation protection by linking increases to the CPI, rather than providing an arbitrary annual nominal increase that leads to enormous fluctuations in retirees’ real standards of living;
  7. Substantially increases the likelihood that the state will begin to pay down the unfunded liability, both by reducing the state’s share of future costs and by providing the stakeholders with a legal right to enforce state funding;
  8. Appropriately aligns incentives so that universities bear the full cost of their hiring decisions;
  9. Suggests many other features that attempt to bring some rationality and transparency to a complex and opaque system (such as reducing the hidden subsidy provided via a financially inappropriately high Effective Rate of Interest);

In recent weeks, once it became clear our plan was gaining political traction, two different analyses came out criticizing our Six Step Plan.  There are two things to note about these criticisms:

First, neither critique provides a truly serious alternative that is politically, legally and fiscally realistic.

Second, the criticisms are striking in the extent to which they are mirror-images, taking precisely opposing views to one another.  The first of these critiques was offered by the Illinois Policy Institute.  They criticize our plan for preserving the DB system, not moving fully to a DC world, not eliminating COLAs, not saving enough money, and taking too long to phase in the changes.  The second of these critiques is by a researcher at University of Illinois at Chicago and the head of Keystone Research Center.  They criticize our plan for not preserving the DB system in its entirety, for suggesting the introduction of a DC element, for partially reducing COLAs, for asking the state to pay down the unfunded liability too quickly and for cutting benefits too much.  And, in an amazing feat of mental gymnastics, they also suggest that by reducing  spending the plan will somehow raise costs to the state.

To the extent we were trying to design a proposal in the “sensible center” of this debate, I will take these completely offsetting criticisms as confirmation that we are on the right track.

Here is a brief table summarizing how the two critiques often negate each other, in their own words (followed by my parenthetic and italicized remarks summarizing their view in my own words).

Our Proposal

Illinois Policy Institute

KeyStone Research

COLA: Switch from 3% automatic annual increase to 50% of CPI “The IGPA plan fails to achieve the savings necessary to reform Illinois’ pension system by only partially reducing cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs”

(in other words, we should completely eliminate the COLA)

“It would undermine the retirement security of Illinois public‐sector retirees, and especially harm those who live a long retirement”

(in other words, we should make no changes to the COLA)

Hybrid DB/DC system for new employees “The IGPA plan takes reform in the wrong direction by maintaining the defined benefit pension system for current workers”

(in other words, we should totally eliminate the DB and have only a DC)

The plan would “be as bad as or worse than Tier 2 because of the

reduction in the defined benefit portion of the plan from a 2.2% multiplier to 1.5%.”  and “DC plans are less cost effective”

(In other words, we should totally preserve the existing DB and not have any DC)

Force the state to pay down the unfunded liability “this plan allows the pension systems and their members to take legal action to compel the state to make the pension payment. Pension guarantees similar to this plan prioritize pension payments above all other government services, jeopardizing funding for those who rely on it the most.”

(in other words, we should not provide additional tools to force states to pay down the unfunded liability)

“This could be coupled with extending the time

taken to get to 100% funding.”

(In other words, we should not actually reduce benefits, but simply stretch the payments over a longer period of time)

Reduces state’s overall cost as much or more than other proposals “Savings this small not only fail to solve the problem, but will also require lawmakers to revisit Illinois’ pension crisis again in just a few short years.”

(In other words, we simply did not slam workers and retirees enough)

“the Universities proposal could result in higher costs to taxpayers”

(In other words, even though they think we are cutting benefits too much, they falsely claim that somehow this risks increasing costs)

I can understand why those who advocate for the smallest possible government would be disappointed with a plan that does not squeeze out even more savings from the pockets of public sector workers.  I can also understand why some public sector workers and retirees would oppose any benefit reduction.  But such extreme views, while potentially useful for advocacy purposes, do not make for good public policy.  The above comparison make it self-evident that these two critiques are attempts to bolster opposing untenable positions: the Illinois Policy Institute would prefer that we decimate retirement security, and the KeyStone group naively acts as if we can solve this crisis without meaningful changes to benefits.  Supporters of both positions will be disappointed with any realistic proposal that actually solves Illinois’ pension problem while preserving retirement security of public workers.

You may not like our plan.  As I noted earlier, I am not in love with it either.  But I still think it is the best idea out there so far.  Very little in the Illinois Policy Institute or Keystone critiques alters my view with the exception of continuing the existing Self-Managed Plan as a voluntary option for some new employees, as suggested by the Illinois Policy Institute, although I do not think it is the best choice for the median employee.

I am totally open to the possibility that better ideas than ours may still be out there – and if either of these two groups (or any other group or individual) have substantive suggestions that are fiscally responsible AND politically feasible AND constitutional AND not unduly harmful to public employees, I would love to hear them.  So far, however, I continue to believe our Six Step proposal is the most serious proposal on the table.

 Prof. Jeffrey R. Brown, 8/19/2013

 (Author’s note: the opinions expressed here are those of the author – Prof. Jeffrey Brown – alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of any of my co-authors or the University of Illinois.)

Three Hard Lessons from Illinois Public Pension Reform

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on May 30, 2012

The Illinois General Assembly stands on the verge of passing an historic public pension reform.  After many decades of serial underfunding, the legislature and Governor have finally agreed to act.  The news for taxpayers is primarily good: through a combination of cost reductions and cost shifting, the public pension fiscal drain on state revenue is being substantially reduced.  This is welcome news in a state with a fiscal situation as dire as Illinois’.

Although the reform provides substantial cost savings to the taxpayers of Illinois, it also comes at significant costs.  In this post, I want to draw three big picture lessons from this reform.  I will post additional material on more detailed features of the reform in the coming days and weeks.

Lesson 1:  Constitutional Benefit Guarantees Don’t Always Protect Participants

Sensible public pension reform in Illinois has been hamstrung by the fact that we are one of the few states whose constitution contains a clause guaranteeing that retirement benefits for public workers cannot be “diminished or impaired.”  In a well-functioning system, the existence of this guarantee would have two beneficial effects.  First, it would lead to better funding (“we had better fund it, because we are going to have to pay it!”)  Second, it would cause workers to fully value the pension benefits being provided: thus, in a competitive labor market, wages would adjust to reflect the value of the pension, and thus the compensation package would be economically efficient.

But Illinois is far from a well-functioning political system.  Thus, what the constitutional guarantee brought us was: 1) Four decades of under-funding: if benefits are guaranteed, why should workers care about funding?  2) The inability to reform the system in a logical, sensible way. 

The constitutional prohibition against benefit impairment took “off the table” a whole host of sensible reforms, including my favorite: raising the retirement age to qualify for full benefits.  Instead, politicians were forced to play a game of “pension Twister,” contorting policy in all sorts of ways to find a way of cutting benefits that might pass constitutional muster.  Sadly, despite all of these contortions, many of us believe that the Courts are still likely to strike down this reform – on this issue, see yesterday’s post by my colleague Nolan Miller

Lesson 2:  Separating Responsibility and Control is a Bad Idea

The world is full of bad behavior that results when the entity with the power to make decisions is not the same entity that bears financial responsibility for the results.  In the case of Illinois, this issue manifested itself historically through the fact that universities, community colleges, school districts and other public employers were able to make hiring decisions without any responsibility for the pension liabilities that those decisions created. 

Post-reform, we will have a different manifestation of this problem.  The Illinois legislature has – after a relatively brief phase-in period – absolved itself from any further financial responsibility for future public pension accruals.  The funding of all “normal costs” will gradually be transferred entirely to the institutions themselves.  The problem is that Illinois politicians did not also grant these same institutions the power to design and implement their own retirement plans.  In short, the Illinois politicians still get to design the system – the universities and school districts just now have to pay for it.  Although there are a few safeguards being put in place to guard against the most egregious abuses of this new regime, I predict it will not take long for the state to find a way to curry favor with some voting block and pass the cost onto the employers.

Lesson 3:  Public Sector Accounting Rules Really Do Matter

I have blogged extensively about the many flaws of the public pension accounting standards promulgated by the Government Accounting Standards Board (for some examples, see here, here, here and here).  GASB allows public pensions to discount future liabilities with an inappropriately high rate, thus understating the real scope of the problem by ignoring risk. 

Unfortunately, these flawed GASB standards framed the Illinois debate, and in so doing has had the effect of 1) over-stating the extent to which the state is going to do penance for its past sins of historical under-funding, and 2) under-stating the real size of the liability being pawned off on the universities, colleges and school districts throughout the state. 

The hardest hit by this provision will be those employers – such as the flagship campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) – that compete in a global labor market for talent.  If UIUC wishes to maintain its position as one of the leading public research universities in the nation, it will have to continue to provide a competitive compensation package: but it will now being doing so with virtually no assistance from the state.  The even worse alternative would be to watch its best and brightest faculty and staff members run for the exits.

Public pension reform was badly needed in Illinois, and our elected officials ought to be congratulated for having the political will to undertake it.  Unfortunately, I fear that they botched the substance of reform. 

Of course, none of this may matter – I still believe there is a greater than 50% chance that the Illinois courts will overturn it. 

Here is hoping they get it right the next time around …

The Choice Between Two Unconstitutional Options is Not Constitutional

Filed Under (Other Topics, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Nolan Miller on May 29, 2012

As I’ve said before, I’m not a lawyer.  But, since the Illinois House Democrats have decided to move into incentives, why not?  The details of the pension reform proposal that passed an Illinois House committee today are still vague, but here is a write up about it.

Simply put: the proposals currently under consideration in which members are offered a “choice” between options, as currently constructed, are not constitutional.  Here’s why.

The Illinois Constitution says that membership in a state pension program is a contractual relationship the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.

Any contractual relationship has to have, well, a contract.  In this case, the terms of the contract are spelled out in the Illinois Pension Code.

The Illinois Pension Code specifies the way in which pension benefits will be calculated.  The details are slightly different for different pension funds, but I’ll talk about the part that pertains to Tier I participants in the State Universities Retirement System (SURS).  In particular, the amount of the retirement annuity is specified in Section 15-136 of the Pension Code.  Here it is:

Rule 1: The retirement annuity shall be … for persons who retire on or after January 1, 1998, 2.2% of the final rate of earnings for each year of service.

That seems pretty clear.  The “final rate of earnings” is defined in Section 15-112.  For a person who first becomes a participant before Jan. 1, 2011 (i.e., Tier I participants), the final rate of earnings is defined as:

For an employee who is paid on an hourly basis or who receives an annual salary in installments during 12 months of each academic year, the average annual earnings during the 48 consecutive calendar month period ending with the last day of final termination of employment or the 4 consecutive academic years of service in which the employee’s earnings were the highest, whichever is greater. For any other employee, the average annual earnings during the 4 consecutive academic years of service in which his or her earnings were the highest. For an employee with less than 48 months or 4 consecutive academic years of service, the average earnings during his or her entire period of service.

That also seems pretty clear.

One more excerpt from the Pension Code.  This one has to do with annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs).  From Section 15-136

The annuitant shall receive an increase in his or her monthly retirement annuity on each January 1 thereafter during the annuitant’s life of 3% of the monthly annuity provided under Rule 1, Rule 2, Rule 3, Rule 4, or Rule 5 contained in this Section. The change made under this subsection by P.A. 81-970 is effective January 1, 1980 and applies to each annuitant whose status as an employee terminates before or after that date.

Beginning January 1, 1990, all automatic annual increases payable under this Section shall be calculated as a percentage of the total annuity payable at the time of the increase, including all increases previously granted under this Article.

This part of the Pension Code also seems clear: COLAs are to “include all increases previously granted under this Article.”  In other words, COLAs compound rather than being based on the original amount of the annuity.  And, COLAs start the January after retirement.

So, let’s review.  The Illinois Constitution says that membership in a pension system is a contractual relationship. The terms of that contract are given by the Pension Code, and the Pension Code specifies the way in which final pension benefits should be computed.  In particular, it specifies that the final rate of earnings is average earnings over the final 4 years of service, or the 4 consecutive years in which earnings were the highest.  Thus, the Pension Code states that future pay raises will be included in future pension benefits.  The Pension Code also states that COLAs are to begin immediately after retirement and be computed on a compound basis.

So, let’s return to the “choice” that would be offered to members of the pension system under the proposal.  Details are sparse, but the basic choice to be offered to members will be:

(A)  Keep the current pension plan, but give up the state subsidy for retiree health benefits and having future raises be included in pension benefits, and

(B) Keep the state subsidy for retiree health benefits, but receive a less generous cost of living adjustment (COLA) where annual increases are based on the pension payment at the time of retirement rather than the most recent year’s pension.  That is, the COLA is not compounded over time.  Further, the COLA will not kick in until 5 years after retirement or age 67, whichever comes first.  There is also language in at least the governor’s proposal that will limit the COLA to a simple 3% or ½ the increase in the consumer price index, whichever is lower.

Now, supporters of this approach claim that is constitutional because it offers participants a choice.  This claim is invalid.  While a choice might be constitutional, in order for this to be the case, it must be that one of the options does not impair or diminish the benefits of the current pension system.  This is not true here.  Option (A) denies members their contractual right to have the final annual rate of earnings be based on their highest 4 years of earnings, which would include future raises.  Option (B) denies members their contractual right to have COLAs be 3% compounded each year.  Since both options impair and diminish the benefits of the pension, if members are forced to make a choice between A and B, their pension benefits will necessarily be reduced.

Constitutionally speaking, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Consequently, to me it seems clear that the proposals are not constitutional.  Given that so many of our legislators are backing these proposals, there must be an argument for why the proposal is constitutional.  I can’t see it, though.

ADDENDUM (5/30/12):  This isn’t a post about whether it is right or fair to reduce retiree health benefits (it isn’t), but rather whether it is constitutional (it probably is).  Retirees who began working for the State of Illinois before April 1986 (at least in the case of SURS) may not be eligible for Medicare Part A.  In this case, removing health insurance benefits would leave workers exposed to significant financial and health risk even after the age of 65.  The state also does not contribute to Social Security, so state workers who retire are also not eligible for Social Security (unless it is by virtue of having worked for another employer).  Obviously, removing employer-sponsored health benefits and reducing the COLA is going to expose retirees to substantial new risks, and the proposal becomes much more complicated and controversial in this case.