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.)

The Hidden Economic Logic Behind the “Take it to the Courts” View on Illinois Pensions

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on May 23, 2011

Many public employees and retirees in Illinois are (understandably) extremely agitated by the ongoing discussions about public pension reform in Illinois.  Today, I was forwarded yet another email by someone concerned about recent comments made by Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford. 

In a nutshell, some in the legislature are kicking around an idea to get around the Illinois constitution’s prohibition against “impairing” retirement benefits by offering employees a choice:  pay higher premiums in order to keep existing benefits, or switch into a less generous plan. 

To questions about whether this would or would not violate the impairment clause of the Illinois constitution, there is considerable uncertainty.  Rutherford’s reaction view is (my paraphrase, not an actual quote) – “let’s pass it and then let the Courts sort it out.”

It is obvious why this is not satisfying to public employees – after all, it is their benefits that might get cut, or their contributions that may go up. But setting aside all the questions about what we “should” or “should not” do, I think there is tremendous logic to having the legislature pass a law in order to get a more definitive ruling on what the state “can” or “cannot” do.  Yes, I agree that it is really unfortunate that we may have to pass a law to find out exactly where the limits of the impairment clause are, but that appears to be the hand we have been dealt.  But figuring out where Illinois Courts will draw this line is exceedingly important.

Why?  As I have noted before, when employers provide employee benefits, they are not doing so just to be nice.  They are doing so to attract, retain and motivate employees.  In short, it is one component of the compensation package.  In an environment that is disciplined by market forces, employers will only offer employees pensions if the average employee values the pension at more than it costs the employer to provide.  Otherwise, both would be made better off by paying cash.  As I have also written, however, it is not clear how well this market discipline works for public employees.

The major problem we have in Illinois is that we may be in the worst of all worlds, namely, one in which the pension benefits are indeed fully protected by the constitution, but where the perception of political risk means that employees value them far less then they will actually cost to provide.  If this is the case, then nobody wins!  Taxpayers are on the hook for the full cost, but employees do not value the benefits fully.  So the total cost of providing public services goes up!

We would all be better off to have legal clarity.  If the state courts rule that the benefits are protected, then public employees and retirees can go back to valuing their benefits at full value (which will help with recruitment, retention, and general happiness), and the state can move on to figuring out how else to manage its serious fiscal problems.  If the court rules that forcing higher contributions does not violate the contribution, then we can hopefully have a sensible conversation about what the optimal mix of wages and benefits are going forward. 

Either outcome would be far preferable to the current situation.

The Real Risk to Illinois Public Pension Participants: Retiree Health Care

Filed Under (Health Care, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Oct 6, 2009

I’ve noted in prior postings that public pensioners in Illinois have very little to worry about with regard to their pension benefits.  But now the bad news – they do have reason to be concerned about retiree health insurance.


As I stated in a previous post, Article XIII, Section 5 of the Illinois state constitution protects pension benefits.  Specifically, it states:


“Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”


That is about as strong of a guarantee as anyone could hope for in this day and age.  Indeed, Social Security offers no such guarantees.  The Supreme Court of the United States has previously (in 1960) ruled that individuals have no inherent “right” to their Social Security benefits (see Fleming v. Nestor).  Congress can alter them at anytime. 


But, the above guarantee is limited to the benefits from the retirement system, such as the Statue Universities Retirement System (SURS) or the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS).  As much as participants might hope that retiree health insurance is a benefit of the retirement system, I (and, more importantly, most of the lawyers to whom I have posed this question) don’t think this argument would stand much of a chance in the courts. 


Of course, even in states that do not have explicit constitutional guarantees, retirement benefits are often protected by a contract clause.  And, yes, Illinois has one of those too.  Specifically, the Illinois constitution states:


“No ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts or making an irrevocable grant of special privileges or immunities, shall be passed.”


I have asked a few knowledgeable legal experts about whether this would apply in the case of retiree health care.  The responses are typically consistent – that while contract impairment provisions are sometimes successful with regard to the terms of a retirement system contract, nobody could point to a case where this provision was successfully applied to benefits under an employment contract because employment contracts, by their nature, are temporary.  If you doubt this, just consider the fact that the University of Illinois changed our contracts for the current year to allow the University to require involuntary, unpaid furloughs!


Of course, I am an economist, not a lawyer – and I am certainly no judge.  So this is not to say that retired Illinois public servants don’t have a case worthy of court if the state were to eliminate or substantially reduce their retiree health care benefits.  As has been pointed out to me by others, such a case is certainly likely to be given “an attentive listen” by the courts.  But whether that translates into any actual protection of benefits is anybody’s guess.  If I were a betting man (I’m not), then I would best against it.


So should retirees panic?  Of course not.  We should never forget that we live in a democracy, and most politicians know that the surest way to lose the next election is to do something that makes a large voting bloc – especially seniors – angry, motivated and mobilized.  Politically, I doubt the state will do anything so drastic as to eliminate retiree health benefits for existing retirees or those close to retirement.  But even if drastic changes are out, the reality of the dire long-run budget picture in Illinois would seem to dictate that retiree health care will be an area that legislators look to for future savings. 


So, I would much rather that retired public servants enjoy their retirement worry-free.  But for those who want something to worry about, then retiree health benefits are worth a lot more worry than pension benefits.

Do Illinois Pensioners and Taxpayers Know the True Value of Public Pensions?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Sep 28, 2009

Last week I wrote about the (often misguided) debate over the generosity of public pensions in the state of Illinois.  I ended by noting that it was important to further examine how my previous analysis would change once we account for two under-appreciated facts about the Illinois pension system.    


The first under-appreciated fact is that Illinois is one of a small number of states that provides an explicit constitutional guarantee against the impairment of pension benefits.  Specifically, Article XIII section 5 of the Illinois State constitution states that: “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State … shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”


While Illinois is not alone in providing this guarantee – similar language is included in the constitutions of Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan and New York – it should be noted that not all states provide such a guarantee.  In Indiana, for example, the Indiana Court of Appeals (in Haverstock v. State Public Employees Retirement Fund” stated that “pensions are mere gratuities springing from the appreciation and graciousness of the state.”


In a paper that I wrote with David Wilcox in the May 2009 American Economic Review, we discuss just how powerful these guarantees have proven to be over the years.  On the basis of that analysis, I am highly confident that Illinois pensioners will receive their benefits.  Unfortunately, with Illinois having one of the worst records of effective governance in the U.S., most other pensioners and participants are not quite so confident.  One way or another, most of them think, the politicians in this state will find some way to renege (at least partially) on these benefits.  (As an aside, what public servants really have reason to be afraid of is that retiree health benefits will disappear – those are not covered by the impairment clause.) 


The second underappreciated fact is that the public defined benefit pension plans in Illinois are far too complex for the average (or even the highly sophisticated) participant, taxpayer or legislator to properly value.  There are many reasons for this, but mainly it boils down to the fact that the ultimate benefit depends on a lot of variables that will only be known with certainty many years in the future, such as one’s final average salary.  If that were not complex enough, the legislature has made it even more complicated by having multiple benefit formulas in place.  For example, in the “Traditional” defined benefit plan under the State Universities Retirement System (SURS), participants who joined the system prior to July 2005 received a benefit that was the higher of two approaches.  The first was the standard formula (2.2% times years of service times final average compensation).  The second was a “money purchase” option that essentially kept track of the individual’s contributions, matched them with a state match (at least on paper – we already know the state did not really provide the money), and then credited them with an “Effective Rate of Interest,” or ERI.  Then, at retirement, the “balance” in this largely fictitious account was converted to an annuity using an annuity table that used a rate quite close to the ERI.  If the resulting number was higher than the standard formula, the annuitant gets this higher amount instead. 


Confused yet?  If you answered “yes,” don’t feel bad.  Most participants don’t understand all these details.  It is complex stuff that requires a high degree of financial sophistication to truly follow.  If you answer “no,” then let me ask a few extra credit questions.  First, do you know what mean, standard deviation and range the ERI has been in for the last 25 years?  And do you know how the annuity conversion factor compares to market rates?


By this point, I suspect very few people know the answer.  Again, don’t feel bad.  I study pensions for a living, and it took me a lot of time and research to find these answers (and, alas, it was too late – by the time I understood all the details, I had already made a sub-optimal pension choice – and it was unfortunately a lifetime irrevocable one!) 


Without boring you with details, let me give you a flavor of what I have since learned.  The way the SURS board has historically set the ERI, participants in the DB plan were getting an enormously high return (roughly 8-9%) relative to the risk (as measured by the standard deviation in the ERI, which was tiny over the past 25 years), and this high return was being implicitly guaranteed by the taxpayer.  And the annuity rate?  It is substantially more favorable than even the most attractive private market annuity prices – I’m talking in the range of 50% or more benefits per dollar in the “account,” and in some cases, far more.  These two factors explain why most people retiring from SURS in recent years actually received a higher benefit from the money purchase calculation than the basic formula.


What do these two points – the constitutional guarantee and the complexity of the benefit formula – have to do with each other?  Put simply, they have conspired to put an enormous pension funding burden on taxpayers without providing commensurate perceived value to state workers!


Let me explain.  As a result of a complex benefit formula that hides the true value of the pensions – combined with the fact that most participants view the DB pension promises as being at some risk of not being honored – means that most public pension participants do not value the pensions at their full economic value.  This fact partially mitigates the point I made last time because this means the “compensating wage differential” will not be dollar-for-dollar. 


However, the fact that participants discount their benefits in this way does NOT mean that the state is not actually incurring the full economic costs.  Indeed, the constitutional guarantee means that the states’ taxpayers ARE on the hook for the full economic cost of these benefits.


In essence, we have the worst of both worlds.  Public employees are earning a valuable benefit, but because our legislators have (i) created a needlessly complex system, (ii) created a complete lack of confidence in the security of these promises, and (iii) have provided us with a constitutional guarantee that the benefits will be paid, the participants don’t fully value the benefits even though the state bears the full costs.


If any private company did this – providing a costly benefit that was valued by employees at less than the true cost to the employer – that company would soon be bankrupt.  But this is Illinois state government.  So, instead, we continue to build up enormous funding liabilities that will simply be passed on to the next generation of Illinois taxpayers.  It may be “business as usual” in Illinois.  But it’s also a real shame.


Public servants and taxpayers of Illinois deserve better.


Are Public Pension Plans in Illinois Too Generous?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Sep 22, 2009

The Chicago Sun Times has recently had a series of articles about public pensions in Illinois.  One of the recent ones – “Public pensions, fat retirements” – focuses on the 4,000 retired government workers that receive pensions of at least $100,000 per year.  The article quotes several people saying things like “it’s both illogical and extraordinarily expensive” to provide such pensions and noting that public pensions are “extremely generous.”


There is no question that public pension funding in Illinois is in need of serious attention.  For those that have not yet noticed, Illinois pension obligations are enormous – and this is primarily the result of many decades of irresponsible budget practices on the part of Illinois politicians who have consistently chosen to underfund pensions.  In essence, the State has a history of not paying its pension bills, and future Illinois taxpayers will eventually have to ante up in a big way.  This is an enormous problem, and one that needs to be addressed.  I will focus more on the fiscal strains of pensions in future posts.


For this post, I simply want to comment on the debate about whether public pensions are really “too generous.”  What exactly does this mean?  (The short answer is that such statements are largely vacuous … read on).


Some people make such statements on the basis of comparing Illinois pensions to those of retirees in the private sector or in other states.  This leads to a whole host of arguments from critics and defenders, such as the fact that Illinois public workers do not participate in Social security.  


At the end of the day, however, none of these arguments are the least bit helpful in answering the question at hand.  The reason is that pensions are only one part of the total compensation package.  To the extent that labor markets in Illinois and the US more broadly are reasonably competitive, then workers are trading pension benefits against other forms of compensation, including wages. 


Most economists believe that workers bear the cost of employee benefits in the form of lower wages.  Let’s suppose a newly minted PhD has been offered positions as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois and at the University of Michigan.  The academic labor market is pretty darn competitive, so the University of Illinois will only be successful at hiring this person if the total compensation package is competitive.  The pension is one piece of that package, but there are numerous other factors at play as well.  If we were to offer an individual a less generous pension, then the University would almost surely have to compensate this person in other ways, such as higher pay, more generous health benefits, more time off, or something else.


So when pensioners say the earned their benefits, they are right.  Not only did they pay their own contributions into the system, but the state contributions (yes, the ones that never actually got made!) were also funded by these very same employees in the form of lower wages.  In essence, state employees accepted lower wages in return for a promised future pension benefit.  


If we believe we have the mix of compensation wrong, then let’s adjust this mix for future workers (we have to focus on the future because the impairment clause of the state constitution restricts our ability to do so for current workers).  But let us not be so naïve as to think that we can cut pension benefits while holding all else equal. 


So at the end of the day it really makes little economic sense to suggest that pensions are “too generous,” given that the pensioners paid for these benefits throughout their careers.  The problem is not pension generosity – the problem is the politicians who could not keep their hands off the money. 


In future posts, I will discuss in more detail how the above analysis changes when we consider two important factors.  First, that in spite of a constitutional guarantee of pension benefits, participants don’t have complete confidence in the inviolability of their benefits.  Second, that the complexity of the pension benefit calculations means that very few participants, taxpayers or policymakers truly understand the true economic value or costs of the benefits that are being provided.  Stay tuned …