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.)

Illinois Public Pension Reform: A Simple but Radical Idea

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Jun 4, 2012

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. 

Incredible Pension Promises

Filed Under (Other Topics, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Nolan Miller on May 8, 2012

in•cred•i•ble (adjective): too extraordinary and improbable to be believed.

I wrote last week about the Illinois public pension mess and how ceasing to offer fully-paid retiree health benefits might help to address the problem by causing workers to delay retirement.  The reason why such a convoluted route to reducing pension costs is needed is because of the non-impairment clause of the Illinois state constitution, which prevents the state from reducing benefits for current employees.  In short, the non-impairment clause says that membership in a state pension system is a contractual relationship between the worker and the state.  And since contracts cannot be unilaterally renegotiated by one of the parties, the state is in a situation where it would seem to have no way out of its obligation to pay promised benefits to its current and future retirees.

In his proposal to reform the state pension system, Governor Quinn has tried to avoid the non-impairment clause by offering workers a choice.

On the one hand, current workers can keep their current pension plan but lose the right to have future pay increases be included in their final pension benefits and lose the subsidy that the state currently pays for retiree health benefits.  (Now, the first part of this plan clearly violates the non-impairment clause because the formula used to compute final benefits is specified in the Illinois Pension Code and clearly includes future pay raises.  But, that’s not today’s topic.)

On the other hand, employees can accept a significantly less-generous pension plan but maintain the employer subsidy toward retiree health benefits.  (Now, the less-generous pension plan pushes full retirement to age 67, when employees would be eligible for Medicare anyway, so it is unclear how valuable this promise would be to retirees.  But, that’s not today’s topic either.  There is also the real question of whether this would be considered “coercion” by the state.  In the past the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that an employee cannot be coerced into giving up his pension benefits.  But, that’s also not today’s topic.)

This would be the time to ask ourselves why the non-impairment clause was included in the Illinois Constitution in the first place.  An analysis by Eric Madiar, Chief Legal Counsel to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, confirms what you might suspect.  Public workers in the state of Illinois were concerned about whether the state would pay the pension benefits that it had promised them.  State and local workers generally receive lower cash wages than their private-sector counterparts, but higher benefits, including more generous pensions.  Thus, when an employee accepts a job working for state or local government, promised future pension benefits play a major role in making that job attractive enough for them to accept.  In light of this it is not surprising that they would be concerned about whether the state could be trusted to pay those future benefits.  This led state and local workers to propose that pension benefits be guaranteed in the Illinois constitution, and this proposal ultimately became the non-impairment clause.

Economists think a lot about commitment.  That is, we wonder about things like how it is that an agent can commit to take an action in the future that is not it its own short-term interest.  Or, we wonder how it is that an agent can be given incentives to take actions today that do not benefit it until the distant future.  Both of these issues arise in the context of pension funding.  In order to induce an worker to take a government job that pays less today, that worker must believe that the state will actually fulfill its promise to pay higher pension benefits in the future.  Similarly, in order for current legislators to cut current spending and use the money to fund future pension payments, there must be consequences.  The non-impairment clause addresses both of these issues.  The highest law of the state guarantees that the state will make the future payments.  This guarantee is so strong that a state that fails to properly plan for these payments will face fiscal collapse – as we do now.  Even in the face of fiscal collapse, the non-impairment clause suggests that pension payments must take precedent over many other payments.  With these promises in place, workers should be confident that the state will fulfill its future obligations.  Ideally, knowing that failure to plan for the future will jeopardize the entire state, legislators will make appropriate funding decisions to avert disaster.

Consequently, the non-impairment clause plays a vital role in the state’s finances.  Over the years it has been used to induce workers to accept a lower wage today in exchange for the seemingly-credible promise to provide higher benefits in the future.  In other words, the non-impairment clause has allowed the state to push the cost of paying current workers onto future taxpayers.  Kicking the can down the road in this manner has been a major tool in the state’s fiscal toolbox.

Let’s think about the role of commitment in regards to Governor Quinn’s proposed choice.  The plan says that those who want to keep their current pension will lose retiree health benefits.  The governor can take away retiree health benefits because they are not guaranteed by the non-impairment clause.  An employee who accepts the governor’s proposal would get a less-generous plan but keep the state’s promise of retiree health benefits.

In order for an employee to voluntarily accept this plan (if they believe that current pensions cannot be impaired), it must be because the employee values retiree health benefits.  But, even an employee who values retiree health benefits would have to believe that, when they retire in the future, the state would actually provide the promised benefits, and would continue to do so even if times were tough.  In fact, when times are tough that’s when people need their pensions the most.  So workers might be particularly concerned about whether a state under fiscal pressure would continue to fulfill their promises.  Sound familiar?

This is where things become a bit tricky for the state.  Times are tough right now, and the state has responded by threatening to take away retiree health benefits.  This has occurred both in the governor’s proposal and in the state legislature, where pending legislation would eliminate the state’s subsidy for retiree health premiums, which amounts to about $7400 per retiree per year.  So, the state is, on the one hand threatening to take away retiree health benefits and on the other hand asking workers to believe that their promise that those who accept the governor’s proposal will continue to receive these benefits in the future.  And, all of this is taking place in a situation that was brought about by the state’s failure to adequately plan to meet its constitutional obligation to pay pension benefits.

This brings us to the big question: Why should workers expect the state to honor its commitment to provide a non-guaranteed benefit when it isn’t even honoring the benefits that it is constitutionally obligated to provide? While the governor’s plan should be commended for attempting to address the pension crisis through asking workers to voluntarily accept a change in benefits, in the end I would be surprised if workers are willing to give up their constitutionally guaranteed pension benefits for an incredible promise to provide health benefits.

Practically speaking, any proposal that asks for voluntary acceptance by workers is going to have to exchange currently promised benefits for some promise of future benefits, and any such promise of future benefits is going to face this same credibility problem.  The state, by finding a way around its constitutional promise of future benefits, may find that it loses the ability to induce people to work today for lower wages and promises of higher payments via pensions in the future.  If workers respond to this by insisting on higher wages today, the state may find itself facing a choice between higher wage costs or lower-quality workers.  Even if the state can find a way around the non-impairment clause, it will not be without its costs.


ADDENDUM (5/30/12):  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.  Obviously, removing employer-sponsored health benefits is much more complicated and controversial in this case.

Pension Discounting: The Brits Have It Wrong Too

Filed Under (Retirement Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Apr 27, 2011

Today’s Financial Times has reported on a letter signed by me, my Illinois colleague George Pennacchi, and 21 other pension experts in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia explaining why the Chancellor of the Exchequer needs to re-think how pension discounting is done in the U.K.  It seems the U.S. is not the only nation having trouble grappling with basic financial economics.

Happy 75th Birthday Social Security. But What Now?

Filed Under (Health Care, Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Aug 9, 2010

This coming Saturday, August 14, marks the 75th birthday of the U.S. Social Security system. Specifically, it marks the date that President Roosevelt signed the Act into law, famously stating:

“We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family …”

The original Act specified that benefits were to be paid only to primary workers when they retired at age 65.  The Act established that benefits would be based on payroll tax contributions made during the working years.  Of course, the program has been modified many times over the years (e.g., allowing benefits to be taken at 62, expanding coverage to spouses, disabled workers, and others, dramatic increases in tax rates, changes in benefits, etc). 

Initially, benefits were paid as a lump-sum.  While Ida May Fuller is best known as the first recipient of Social Security benefits, SSA’s historian indicates that the first benefits were paid as a lump-sum, and that:

“The earliest reported applicant for a lump-sum benefit was a retired Cleveland motorman named Ernest Ackerman, who retired one day after the Social Security program began. During his one day of participation in the program, a nickel was withheld from Mr. Ackerman’s pay for Social Security, and, upon retiring, he received a lump-sum payment of 17 cents.”

It was not uncommon for early recipients to receive much more than they put in.  Indeed, it has been estimated that the net transfers to early generations of recipients is well in excess of $10 trillion.  In other words, for most of the last 75 years, the majority of Social Security recipients received far more in payments than they paid into the system (and, yes, this is true even if one accounts for inflation and implied interest on those contributions.)

How is this possible?  Actually, it is quite simple.  Social Security is not a funded pension system.  It is a “pay-as-you-go” transfer system in which the funds paid out to current beneficiaries are provided by current taxpayers.  Such a system can work quite well so long as we have wage growth and so long as the ratio of workers-to-retirees is stable or growing. 

But therein lies the crux of Social Security’s financing problems.  Unlike what many citizens believe, the true problem facing Social Security has very little to do with Congress’ penchant for “spending the Social Security surpluses” of the past 25 years.  It has far more to do with the basic financing structure of the program.

In the 1950s, there were 16 workers paying taxes to support each Social Security beneficiary.  By the time JFK was elected President, it was about 5 workers per beneficiary.  Today we have a bit more than 3 workers for each beneficiary.  In my lifetime, that will fall to 2 workers per beneficiary.

So do the math.  If you want to replace 40% of the average workers income upon retirement, and you have 16 workers supporting each retiree, you only need to collect taxes from each worker equal to 2.5% of their income (2.5 x 16 = 40).  With only 5 workers per retiree, you need to tax them at a rate of 8%.  When there are only 3.3 workers (today’s ratio), you need a tax rate of 12.1%.  (Today’s combined tax rate is about 12.4%).  As the ratio falls to 2-to-1, tax rates need to climb to 20% to keep the system in balance.

(I am simplifying a bit here, but it is remarkable how closely this very simple calculation mirrors the Social Security Trustees’ long-term financial outlook!)

So, as we celebrate the birthday of the Social Security system, we have to ask ourselves some difficult questions.  Can we afford the system we have?  If not, whose benefits do we cut? High income retirees ?  Low income retirees?  Today’s retirees?  Today’s workers?  Alternatively, whose taxes do we raise?  Everyone?  Only high income households?

Just as most members of the human race who are fortunate enough to live to age 75 begin to notice varying degrees of health declines due to aging, so too must we deal with the unhealthy economic consequences of an aging Social Security system. 

Using Pension Obligation Bonds to Feed our Spending Addiction

Filed Under (Retirement Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Jul 20, 2010

Several recent news reports have indicated that Illinois is planning on selling pension obligation bonds in order to come up with the cash to make its contributions to the five state public retirement systems for the next fiscal year.  This is by no means the first time that the state has used POBs: In 2009 it issued just under $3.5 billion of bonds to fund its pension contributions for 2010.  Back in 2003, it issued about $10 billion in bonds for the same purpose.

So, are issuing such bonds a good idea or not?  The answer depends on who you are, and what you are trying to achieve.

If you are a participant in one of the five public plans, the issuance of these bonds sure beats another year of having the state fail to make its contributions.  While I have written before that public employees have little to worry about given the nature of the constitution benefit protections that are in place, any lingering concerns about the state’s inability to make good on pension promises ought to be at least partially mitigated by having additional contributions made into the pension funds.  This is true regardless of whether the funds came from higher taxes, reduced spending, or borrowed funds.

If you are a politician, this is really a good plan because it allows you to – once again – avoid behaving like a responsible adult and making the difficult fiscal choices that ultimately need to be made.

If you are a current taxpayer, it also looks pretty good.  First, we avoid raising taxes now.  Second, we are essentially converting implicit debt (money owed to pensioners) into explicit debt (money owed to bondholders), with the key difference being that it is actually somewhat easier to default on the explicit debt than it is to violate the constitutional non-impairment clause (this is precisely the opposite for Social Security, in which it is easier to reduce benefits than to default on U.S. government debt). 

If you are a beneficiary of other government spending programs, you are also pretty happy.  After all, borrowing to fund the pensions puts less pressure on politicians to cut your favorite spending program.

So far, so good.  Sounds like everyone is a winner.  So, what is the catch? 

The catch is that issuing these bonds takes the pressure off of our elected officials to exert fiscal discipline.  It is like trying to cure a spend-a-holics debt problem by giving them a credit card.    

As such, the losers are all the future generations of taxpayers and program beneficiaries who are going to be saddled with several additional billion dollars worth of debt that must be serviced because we gave today’s politicians an “easy out” from facing their responsibilities today.  This reduction in fiscal discipline is made all-the-more dangerous when these bonds are portrayed as a way to magically reduce our obligations by more than the amount of the debt issuance.  All too often, one hears proponents of these bonds make statements about how the state can borrow at a low rate and invest at a high rate, and thus make money on the difference.  Invariably, such statements ignore the risk differences in the investments, and are akin to try to create a free lunch where none exists. 

Thus, the biggest downside to the use of these bonds is that they are an “enabler” for politicians who are addicted to deficit spending.  The direct effect of this resulting debt burden will be to increase the pressure to raise future taxes and cut future spending on education, health care, roads, state police and every other spending program that people may value.

The indirect effect is that higher future taxes will turn Illinois into an unattractive place for businesses to invest or for our most talented young people to build careers, homes and families.  Who wants to invest in a state that is saddling future generations of businesses and workers with debt?

Well, I guess it was just a matter of time …

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Nolan Miller on Jul 15, 2010

It was just a matter of time until the comparisons of Illinois to Greece started flowing like the waters of the Agean.  Yesterday I came across this story on CNN/Money entitled “Illinois: Our Very Own Greece.”  Luckily, Businessweek says that things aren’t quite that bad. 

“The statement that any U.S. state is the next Greece, meaning a near default on their bonds, is not based on fact,” said Judy Wesalo Temel, a principal and director of credit research at Samson, which manages $7 billion. “Comparing the Greek debt crisis to state and local governments is not valid and is distracting from the real concerns about budgets.”

While that’s encouraging, I couldn’t help but notice that the article spends an awfully long time explaining why Illinois is not Greece.  So, the message seems to be that, while we are not Greece, we are the state most in need of an explanation why we’re not Greece.

Pension Reform in Illinois: Why is everyone cheering?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy) by Fred Giertz on Apr 14, 2010


What passes for pension reform in Illinois came with lightening speed in late March. The bill (SB 1946) appeared suddenly and was approved by substantial bi-partisan majorities in barely two days and enthusiastically signed by Gov. Pat Quinn. After some preliminary actions on March 23, the Illinois House and Senate took 71 separate actions on March 24, leading to the final approval of the bill.                  

The bill was widely hailed in the editorial pages of newspapers in the state as well as the Wall Street Journal and by politicians as an important step toward addressing the state’s massive budget shortfall by dealing with the pension piece of the problem – the one that has come to symbolize the cause of and solution to the state’s fiscal woes.

Unfortunately, the pension reform process was seriously flawed on procedural grounds. In addition, the new legislation falls far short of effectively dealing with pension funding problems, not to mention the larger state budget issue. 

In a recent News-Gazette commentary, State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, heralded a new day of openness and transparency in the General Assembly. His Taxpayer Transparency Act (SB 3622), approved by the Senate, would “put an end to the practice of last-minute, secret budgets in Illinois.”   Further, it will mandate “that general revenue spending proposals must be available for public review for four days prior to the General Assembly taking a vote.” 

Overcome by this spirit of openness, the Senate passed pension legislation that few members, not to mention citizens, understood. By comparison, the recent national health care debate was a model of openness and propriety. In fact, two weeks after the legislation was approved, no one in Springfield could give a definitive answer to a number of key features of the bill. There were no significant hearings on the legislation, no real input from the state’s pension systems, and no competent actuarial study before the bill was approved. 

It is surprising how the editorial writers and commentators bought into the reform idea. In a Chicago Tribune commentary, Abner Mikva, an icon of Illinois politics, stated: “Gov. Quinn and the legislature deserve a lot of credit for a pension reform that is a substantial piece of any meaningful fiscal restraint program. More than a faint praise, they deserve a loud hurrah.” It is disappointing that the former distinguished judge, noted for his advocacy of proper and open procedures in politics, would be cheering what transpired in Springfield. 

The faulty process might be forgiven if the results effectively addressed the pension problem.  Instead, the new bill can be viewed as business as usual similar to the so-called reforms of 2003 and 2005, where purported savings to be realized far in the future became the excuse for reduced current funding efforts. 

The pension bill imposes a new dramatically lower second tier by severely limiting pension coverage and pension benefits for new employees. This will differentially impact public school teachers and public higher education employees who are not covered by social security. New retirement benefits will only be partially indexed for inflation, and these adjustments will not be compounded. The result is that a retiree would lose around 28 percent in purchasing power during a 20-year retirement with 3 percent inflation and 50 percent with 6 percent inflation. 

To save state funds, pension benefits for new employees will be based on a fraction of the social security earnings ceiling – currently $106,800 per year regardless of the actual employee’s salary. This too will only be partially adjusted for inflation, which will cause the earnings ceiling for a new employee working 30 years to fall to 64 percent of the social security ceiling with 3 percent inflation and to 42 percent with 6 percent inflation. 

These are only two of several punitive measures that will reduce future pension benefits. The fallacy of this approach is that it assumes that there will be no adjustment necessary in the hiring costs for new employees who are offered drastically reduced benefits compared to current employees. Can new, highly skilled employees be hired with such meager benefits? This can only be done by paying higher salaries to compensate for the lower benefits or through the establishment of supplementary retirement systems to make up for the deficiency. What the state saves in lower pension costs will be partially offset by higher wages and new supplementary benefit costs. 

Rather than using the new pension savings as a means of setting the state on a path to solvency, the new pension bill is used as an excuse for the state to continue its reckless ways by reducing scheduled pensions contributions. What is overlooked in this discussion is that the budget problems facing the state are really the result of excess spending over several decades where deficits have been partially funded by shorting the state’s pension systems. For example, had the state made timely payments (based on actuarial costs of slightly more than 10 percent of payrolls) to the State Universities Retirement System, SURS would be fully funded with assets of around 106 percent of liabilities rather than its actual level of around 50 percent. 

No reasonable observer can deny that pension reform as well as a careful evaluation of non-pension post-retirement benefits such as health insurance needs to be part of a general solution to the state fiscal mess. However, these changes must be accompanied by greater fiscal discipline as evidenced by spending austerity and enhanced revenues. Unfortunately, the General Assembly appears to view its version of pension reform as a substitute for such discipline.

 Giertz is professor of economics at the University of Illinois and an elected member of the State Universities Retirement System Board of Trustees. The views expressed here are his and not necessarily those of these institutions.


A Case for Underfunding State Pensions?

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Mar 2, 2010

In the last few weeks, the lousy funding status of state and local pension plans was back in the news, thanks primarily to a new study released by the Pew Center on the States (click here for a link to the study).


The news is not good.  The study reports that there is a $1 trillion gap “between the $3.35 trillion in pension, health care and other retirement benefits states have promised their current and retired workers as of fiscal year 2008 and the $2.35 trillion they have on hand to pay for them.”  In fact, the news is probably even worse because this study was conducted before the worst of the equity market decline in late 2008.  


For those readers here in Illinois, you probably already know that our state is among the worst.   According to the Pew Study, “Illinois was in the worst shape of any state, with a funding level of 54 percent and an unfunded liability of more than $54 billion.”  Not that any of us are surprised to learn that Illinois is a case study in bad governance …


I’ve written before (here) about why the pension funding hole may be even worse than the official statistics indicate, especially in those states that have constitutional guarantees of benefits.  What I thought I would do today is make a simple point about an important asymmetry in how funding levels affect pension obligations and what this implies about appropriate funding levels and portfolio allocations.


Let me be clear at the outset – I am usually an advocate of fully funding our pensions.  And I wish we lived in a world in which politicians could engage in rational policy-making based on good economics.  This would include providing responsible levels of pension benefits to public employees and properly funding them.  Unfortunately, we do not live in such a world.  So I thought it would be fun to speculate for a moment about what this political reality implies for pension funding.


I’ve read quite a bit about the history of state pension plans over the past few decades.  I believe the following is almost surely true:  in good economic times (rising state revenues, high equity values, more fully funded pension funds), state governments appear much more likely to increase the generosity of pensions.  But in bad economic times (falling revenues, low equity values, larger funding shortfalls), these same states are legally and/or politically unable to decrease the generosity of pensions.    


This assymetry (increasing benefits in good times, but not being able to cut them in bad times) creates a bit of a conundrum for those of us who normally advocate full funding of pensions.  The reason is that the asymmetric political response suggests that some level of under-funding might actually be optimal (at least in a “second best” sense) because it serves as a constraint on further benefit increases!  


In short, we may prefer that our politicians underfund the pension obligation in order to limit the size of the obligation that ultimately needs to be funded.  Rational economic policy would not have to resort to such tactics.  Real economic policy in a political world might need to do so.


I do, of course, realize the irony here.  Namely that bad economic policy – our inability to have a rational, coherent approach to benefits for public sector workers – is serving as the basis for justifying more bad economic policy – underfunding our pensions.  But as the “theory of the second best” points out, in the presence of one distortion, sometimes society is better served by a second distortion that helps to offset the first.  

Funding Relief is Still a Bad Idea

Filed Under (Retirement Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Feb 3, 2010

Just a quick note: Today, Treasury Secretary Geithner, in response to a question from Rep. Pomeroy (D-N.D.) about DB pension funding relief, stated that “We think there’s a good case for targeted pension relief … and we’d like to work with you on doing that.”

For my view on why I think pension funding relief is both unnecessary and undesirable, see my prior blog on this point by clicking HERE.