Reporter – The State Pension System

The state pension system is in the red to the tune of $9.4 billion, and everyone agrees it’s a mess. The trick is finding the gumption to fix it.

Mary Riley worked her way up the ladder to a middling rung. As a financial clerk for various state institutions, Riley, sixty-one, has helped keep the books while earning a modest living. But her talent for greasing the gears of accounting is useless for retirement math.  She knows that she never missed an 8.75 percent payment into the system in twenty-six years. She knows that her salary hit the heights at $34,687. Beyond that, nothing is certain.
 
“I could be ready to retire,” she says. “Would I be able to retire? That is the $64,000 question. I have no idea what I would get for a pension. Everything has changed.”

A pension is a promise of a reward to come. After decades of promises made at the bargaining table, Riley’s employer began to bend them. Since 2005, a wave of reforms has raised the minimum retirement age and the number of years of service before a worker is eligible to collect, limited cost-of-living raises and changed the pension calculation from three years to an average of the last five years of service. These changes, and others, have muddled the prospects for Riley and the 10,000 middle- and low-wage workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 94.
 
“We are the doers,” she says. “We plow the highways, we feed the students. We are the nuts and bolts that keep things running.”

Nuts and bolts cost pennies — unless, of course, you multiply them in sufficient numbers and compound the result. Retirement costs are the fastest growing component of the state’s total personnel expenditures. In May, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo released her Truth in Numbers report, delineating decades of past political mismanagement and an uncertain future. Today, the state pension system is only funded at 48 percent of the total liability. The gap between the money owed and the money available is $9.4 billion dollars (excluding the cost of retirees’ health care).

The state’s unfunded pension liability is “not an issue,” says State Treasurer Gina Raimondo. “It’s the issue.”

In the first months of her tenure, Raimondo divided her time between laying a case for action and determining what that might be.

“It’s a very complicated problem. We have 60,000 members and 150 pension plans,” she says. “A big part of the reason why the state is in this mess is that people in the past have not thought through the ramifications of legislation. I’ve been doing the slow and important process of getting into the weeds of the numbers and identifying the key drivers of the cost. This is a long process.”

Rhode Island’s example may be extreme, but it is not rare. In April, the Pew Center on the States tallied the combined pension fund liability for all fifty states at a staggering $1.26 trillion. (Municipal pensions aren’t doing any better.) Only two states have fully funded pension systems, New York and Wisconsin. Rhode Island is among a handful scraping bottom as the most poorly funded systems in the nation — even though its members make among the highest percentage of contributions.

Private pensions are governed by the 1974 Employment Retirement Income Security Act, which requires that the trustees operate the plans in a fiscally responsible manner. Public pension plans have had no such strictures. Their foundations have been worn away by human longevity, legislatures’ repeated failure to put aside sufficient funds each year and overly optimistic investment projections.

For Ernie Almonte, the current state of affairs represents an unhappy vindication of an alarm he had been sounding for years. As the state’s auditor general, Almonte was responsible for conducting performance audits and providing the legislature, which appointed him in 1994, with an independent assessment of the state’s financial condition. In 1997, Almonte began to cast Cassandra-like predictions about the state pension system to blasé lawmakers.

“I could see what was coming, but you show them spreadsheets and graphs and their eyes glaze over,” says Almonte, now in private practice.

Over time, he polished his presentation with pithy quotes from Einstein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His audience, however, fixated on one thing:
“They’d ask me: ‘Will it blow up this year?’ and I’d say, ‘No.’ And the listening would stop,” Almonte recalls. “There was no stick. At the end of the day, it was no big deal because  ‘he can’t make me do it.’ ”

Policymakers have not been able to ignore the damage done to state pension funds by the recession and severe contractions of the stock market. Yet, closing this gap will be difficult and painful.

“There are a lot of constraints on doing something bold,” says Ron Snell, who has researched states’ responses to the crisis for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Some states are making changes in the long-term financial structure of their pension plans, but it will take time for them to have a significant effect.”

Employing the same set of reforms that Rhode Island has already enacted will not do enough. (For example, in fiscal 2011, the state’s adjustments to the cost-of-living provision only shaved $16 million.) Ample case law binds states to their past promises for current retirees. Radical changes to pension systems, such as implementing a 401K plan, incur huge short-term and long-term administrative costs. In sum, a comprehensive solution is a political minefield, bound to anger just about everyone.

“It’s an explosive subject,” acknowledges Stephen Fehr, an author of the Pew report. “There’s the long-term question of: What is a decent retirement and how should we fund it?”

We may already be witnessing the end of a brief golden age of retirement, says University of Maryland, Baltimore County sociologist, Leslie Morgan, who has studied the subject extensively. The concept of retirement as a life stage didn’t take hold until the prosperous years of the twentieth century’s latter half. Private companies began to offer pensions as a form of deferred compensation at the turn of the last century. Social Security was created in 1935, part economic stimulus program during the Great Depression and part safety net for the elderly. Around the same period, labor unions bargained widely for pensions in benefit packages.
 
“Then in the 1950s and 1960s, we got to: Everybody retires. Everyone accepted it and looked forward to it, and there were a lot of people who had both Social Security and pensions. In the 1980s, we had the crescendo of: I can afford to retire at fifty-five,” Morgan says. “We are in the process of dismantling that expectation.”

Private pensions have steadily shifted from defined benefit plans, in which employers provide a monthly check upon retirement, to defined contribution 401K-type plans, in which employer and employee contribute to a retirement account. Fewer than half of all workers in the private sector have any type of retirement benefit. As the last large group to enjoy a defined benefit, public sector employees are a flash point for people’s simmering anxiety over the entire United States economy.

“It’s a very difficult position for union leaders,” says George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, which represents members in public and private plans.  “We have multiple responsibilities — an obligation to retirees, to the workforce that’s in place, and you have to look out for the workforce of the future. You have to figure out a balance so everyone will end up with a decent retirement.”

Finding that balance will challenge the state’s dedication to equity, as well as responsibility. Some, such as judges, draw large retirement checks, even though at one time they did not make contributions toward their pensions.

“Why don’t they drop senators and representatives? They got pensions without paying into them,” says Council 94 President Michael Downey. “How come no one has shamed them? Why are they punishing the people who have paid in one of the highest percentages in the country?”

Raimondo is hoping to avert the more severe punishment of no pension at all. Rhode Island’s system is considered “mature,” meaning that there is one active state employee for every retired state employee, but the latter will soon outnumber the former. In April, Raimondo won a small but significant victory when she persuaded a majority of the state retirement board to lower the fund’s investment assumptions from an 8.25 return to 7.5 percent. 

“I think everyone across the board really truly is beginning to work together,” she says. “My approach is to be very pragmatic and practical and fact-based and quantitative. Leave the emotion and the politics behind.

“The gap is big,” she says. “But it is fully fixable.”

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