Money & Policy

Can People With Public Pensions Count on Them?

'PBS NewsHour' business and economics correspondent Paul Solman is pessimistic about the outlook for public pensions

PBS NewsHour business and economics correspondent Paul Solman is answering questions from Next Avenue visitors about personal finances, business and the economy. His advice appears on Next Avenue as well as Solman’s PBS NewsHour blog, Making Sen$e With Paul Solman, and the Rundown, NewsHour’s blog of news and insight. PBS NewsHour is an hourlong television program and accompanying website with the mission of providing intelligent, balanced and in-depth reporting and analysis of the day’s most important domestic and international issues and news.

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My wife and I are retired educators and we each get a fixed pension from the Arizona State Retirement System. When we hear terrible news about the economy we wonder if our pension is going to be there for us. I would appreciate hearing your opinion. – Will Williams

As regards Arizona, I only know what I read. Concerning health care for state retirees, Arizona looks to be in relatively good shape. In fiscal 2010, Arizona had “a $713 million bill for retiree health care costs,” according to a Pew Foundation study, “69 percent of which was funded, well above the 8 percent national average of 2010.”

Pew rated Arizona and Alaska its top two health-care pension states and dubbed Arizona a “solid performer.”

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But when it comes to Arizona pensions themselves, Pew noted “serious concerns.” Its study said: “Although Arizona consistently paid, or exceeded, its full annual pension contribution from 2005 to 2010, the system was 75 percent funded in fiscal year 2010 and faced a $12 billion funding gap. Most experts agree that a fiscally sustainable system should be at least 80 percent funded.”

The picture is further muddied by the fact that “Arizona lawmakers approved pension cuts in 2010 and 2011, including raising employee contributions, lowering state contributions, and limiting cost-of-living increases,” Pew said. “But a district court judge said in 2012 that the higher contributions were unconstitutional, leaving their status in doubt.”

All of that said, you and your wife, Will, would appear to be in a lot better shape than many of your fellow Arizona pensioners.

“The largest system, the Arizona State Retirement System, whose members include teachers and government employees, had the highest funding level” of all Arizona pension systems “at nearly 76 percent as of June 30, 2011,” Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic wrote online in June. “That system is the healthiest because its members historically have paid the same amount into the trust as their employers, and it has not given cost-of-living raises to retirees since 2005 because there were not adequate funds.”

My own prognosis for public pensioners around the country is pessimistic.

Pension funds are in general underfunded, as we’ve reported early, again and again. They assume unrealistically high rates of return on their assets. They refuse to, or simply cannot, raise taxes on their citizens and businesses.

The only alternative is to cut benefits. And that’s happening with increasing frequency all over this land.

P.S. A pension consultant I very much respect, Jeremy Gold, sent the following email not long after I published the above post on the PBS NewsHour site:

The idea that 80 percent funding is somehow considered OK or “fiscally sustainable” or “fully funded” is an urban myth, oft repeated by non-experts including, sadly, Pew. The American Academy of Actuaries has rebutted this myth.

My own view is stronger. I believe that all plans should, at all times, be 100 percent funded on an accrued basis using market rates of discount [which are much lower than the rates pension funds use]. Anything less means that the current generation is enjoying or has enjoyed services that future generations will need to pay for.

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My seventh grade social studies teacher, Miss Helen Brown of JHS 188, explained to us the first law of public finance: Every generation must pay for the services it consumes as those services are consumed. She said that meant, among other things, her compensation. The city could not borrow to pay her because her compensation was on the city’s “operating budget” and no borrowing was allowed on that budget. She added (she was pretty good at this stuff for a 1950s JHS teacher) that the city had a “capital budget.” The capital budget built our school. On the capital budget, borrowing was allowed because the school was built in a year and had a 40-year service life. So paying off the construction bonds was how each generation paid for the consumption of the school over time.

Since then, I have figured out that the politicians figured out that the easiest, biggest way to cheat on the constraint against borrowing on the operating budget was to underfund their pension plans.

I think Gold’s views are on target and that people with public pensions will increasingly see their benefits trimmed.

Paul Solman
By Paul Solman
Paul Solman is the business and economics correspondent for PBS NewsHour.  He has taught at Harvard Business School and his alma mater, Brandeis University, and now teaches at Yale and Gateway Community College. His reporting has won multiple Peabody and Emmy awards. He is co-author of Social Security, Get What's Yours: The Revised Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.@paulsolman

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