Louisiana Pension Borrowing Proposal Shot Down

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Louisiana lawmakers were floating a plan to borrow money and buy out the pensions of thousands of “vested” retirees – paying them a lump sum payment up front in order to reduce the state’s future pension obligations.

But experts and stakeholders testified that the plan was not a good idea.

From the Advocate:

A proposal to borrow money to help reduce state pension system debts got shot down quickly Monday.

The idea was to borrow money that would be used to pay one lump sum and buy out the pensions of vested retirees who have not yet begun to draw their benefits. Waiting before drawing on a pension allows the retiree’s pension to increase in value. Paying off the benefits of those retirees would reduce the state’s $20 billion long-term debt obligations, called the unfunded accrued liability.

But a state treasury official, the Legislature’s actuary and two state retirement system chiefs all testified that the idea was plagued with problems.

Just how many vested retirees could take part in such a program, if approved, is unclear. However, the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana has 6,336 vested but inactive members, and the value of their pensions is $283 million.

Maureen Westgard, executive director of the Teachers Retirement System, said her board “has viewed (the idea of borrowing) as highly risky” in the past.

According to testimony, the aspect of the plan that called for borrowing money was the most problematic. The option of issuing pension obligation bonds was floated. From the Advocate:

Goldman Sachs pitched the idea of “pension obligation bonds,” and he wanted to see if the idea was a viable one, said Pearson, R-Slidell.

“Pension obligation bond history has not been very favorable,” said legislative actuary Paul Richmond, who noted a disaster involving the New Orleans firefighters retirement system.

First Assistant State Treasurer Ron Henson said the state is restricted in its ability to issue debt by a limit on the money it can spend annually in debt payments.

Further, he said, borrowing is already planned for state and local projects that legislators and their constituents want. “Our debt capacity will not allow the luxury of issues like these,” Henson said.

Louisiana State Employees Retirement System Executive Director Cindy Rougeou said it’s uncertain whether the idea would produce a savings or a cost.

“The overall debt is not being reduced. It’s just restructuring part of the overall UAL debt for a hard bond debt,” she said. “It’s almost taking out a second mortgage.”

Louisiana’s pension systems were collectively 58 percent funded in 2013, according to a 2014 Bloomberg analysis. That ranked 8th-worst in the country.

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