State Legislatures Underfunded Pensions

If Lady MacBeth were observing the current political discourse on public employee pensions, she might be inclined to quip that some elected officials seem to be protesting too much.

As states grapple with unfunded pension liabilities, many elected officials are calling the plans unaffordable and relics of the past. Meanwhile, many of these same politicians were instrumental in creating the unfunded pension mess And while some want to blame pension funding shortfalls on stock market losses from the current recession, the problem goes back much further in many states. New Jersey, for example, is currently claiming an unfunded pension liability of $54 billion, leading Gov. Chris Christie to call for cuts to public employee pensions.

But the truth is, for each year since 2002, New Jersey lawmakers have refused to contribute the recommended level of funds to the state pension system. Last year, Gov. Christie elected to skip a $3 billion payment, nearly guaranteeing that the gap will grow.

The pension shortfall is largely man-made. In fact, within the past decade, New Jersey had a pension surplus.

“For much of the last decade and a half, the state of New Jersey has failed to make any contributions to the pension funds, allowing a large deficit to grow,” New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian pointed out in a statement this fall. “Over that same period, teachers and other school employees contributed billions of their own money into the funds, and even increased their contributions in a good faith effort to stabilize the pension funds.”

Many pension opponents advocate a 401(k)-style “defined contribution” investment vehicle for retiring public employees. These types of defined contribution plans are built on the premise that workers should invest while they are young, in order to benefit from compound interest and investment gains. The $5,000 you contribute today could become $50,000 decades later. That’s why it’s ironic that some of these same defined contribution proponents refused to contribute a smaller amount to their state pension systems when they could – now, they need to fund a much larger amount.

It’s a national problem – elected officials in several states refused to adequately fund their states’ pension systems. Illinois, for example, has a pension system underfunded thanks to years of skipping annual contributions or borrowing money to make the contributions. The situation is similar in many other states.

“Rather than cut services, [Illinois] usually chose to underfund its employer contribution,” according to a fact sheet from the Illinois Retirement Security Initiative. “Over time, this chronic failure to make the full employer contribution is the primary reason for Illinois state government’s predicament today, facing the worst unfunded pension liability in the country.”

Put simply, political decisions caused the current pension funding problems in many states, and now public workers feel like they are being unfairly blamed and asked to foot the bill.

“It goes on and on and on,” said retired educator Kathy DuPuis in a recent discussion on public employee scapegoating on NEA’s Speak Up For Education & Kids Facebook page. “Those that serve the public are again blamed for the economic ills.”

  • Randy Houser

    Ok, so who fixes the problem? The states? Or the Feds? Personally, I don’t have a pension and the idea of working the rest of my life to pay higher taxes to states that I never lived and who blew it financially seems like a form of theft.

    Each state needs to fix its own problems and suffer the political heat if they can’t. Maybe then some real fiscal lessons will get learned.

    No Federal bailouts for State Pensions!

  • Pingback: Interesting links from the NEA Web site: « North Carolina Education Policy Blog()

  • Roderic Krapf

    Ever since colonists threw tea into Boston Harbor, Americans have believed that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes. Any politician knows that advocating a tax increase to pay for services the public wants and needs will result in a loss in the next election. Americans would rather believe than think, so the general public heeds the right wing demagogues on Fox and in the republican party: unions are bad; public employees are leeches; teachers are incompetent; government is the problem, severe budget cuts will lead to economic prosperity, et. al.
    The problem is even in our own membership. I volunteered for years as my local’s political action chair. I could not convince a large number of my colleagues that voting for Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, and other right wing republicans was like cutting their own throats since these politicians hated teacher unions, wanted to cut education funding, and believed teachers were incompetent.
    Teaching as a profession and our pensions are doomed.

  • Dianne

    We need to take charge of the “language”…Exact Words are Important…We perform “Necessary Work”. We are not Servants!…Pensions are “end loaded” pay for essential work that was delivered…We signed legal contracts that we would accept some of our pay at the end of our careers…. We need to stay on message just like the organized Conservative “Think Tanks” train their people to do…They are winning because they control the language …We all need to articulate in the same language…”Benefits” is their word…Health Care Insurance is what we buy into as a group and is part of our “paycheck”…We need to Educate the public by staying on message with the same words …We all know that you have to hear something over and over to make it stick… We need to do what we do best…that is “Teach” …Throw everything we know about how the brain works, multiple Intelligences, and how we learn at them…We have communication skills and the Nation’s “talent” . It needs to be mobilized.

  • Li Ma Piec

    Yes, language is most important in this debate.
    Walker’s plan is not “stripping” collective bargaining.
    The word is also not “eliminating.”
    I’ve heard people on both sides identifying the issue
    as a “rights” issue, but they never say whose rights.

    About 17% of the Wisconsin workforce are public service
    workers. AND there are 83% that are not. There are
    rights on both sides. Unfortunately, the 83% is a
    good majority and this majority feels that the public
    unions are way, way out-of-line and driving the whole
    of Wisconsin into a huge, black hole. This is why the
    83% voted the way they did in the last election.
    The 83% is tired of seeing $100 million dollar pumped
    into every election by public unions, purchasing
    governmental offices to do just their bidding.
    The 83% wants democracy in Wisconsin to once again
    become a reality, instead of a small minority
    having their selfish way continually to the ruin of all.
    Walker’s plan proposes DEMOCRACY. He proposes
    allowing new hires decide for themselves if
    they would wish to join a union. Enough of this
    forcing public servers to be a member whether
    they like it or not. There is NOTHING wrong
    with freedom, unless, of course, you think
    like a union boss.

    One more thing…have you considered what the alternative
    to the Walker proposal will be?
    How about massive lay offs? How would YOU like to be
    a teacher, required to teach 25 kids in a morning shift
    and then also another 25 kids in an afternoon shift
    just because the state can’t afford two teachers?
    And then there is this federal plan coming through
    that will allow states to declare bankruptcy.
    Do you know what bankruptcy courts do to underfunded
    pension plans like Wisconsin has for it’s public workers?
    They slash them to bits!
    What are the other alternatives?

    You people really need to get real with the situation
    and start using the brains that you all think that
    you have so much of.