Chart: Is The Actuarially Required Contribution A “Joke”?

percent of annual contribution paidYesterday, Pioneer Institute Senior Fellow Iliya Atanasov called the annual required contribution (ARC) the “biggest joke of the costing and funding process”. He said in a column at Public Sector Inc:

The biggest joke of the costing and funding process is the so-called annual required contribution (ARC) that the actuarial valuation is supposed to determine. In reality, there is nothing “required” about the ARC – most jurisdictions can contribute absolutely nothing and face no legal repercussions, at least in the short run. And when state and local governments don’t make the ARC, they rarely look at, let alone disclose, the long-term cost of postponing the payment and how much more expensive the benefits become as a result. Just look at Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which owe some $300 billion in unfunded liabilities between them, or at the sad condition of once glorious cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit, teetering towards or already in bankruptcy.

As the above chart shows, the country’s public pension funds are indeed failing to pay 100 percent of their ARCs. Often, states and municipalities make full payments to smaller systems but fail to make consistent, meaningful contributions to larger systems. Another chart for more context:

ARC as percent of payroll

Chart: A History of New Jersey’s Pension Payments

New Jersey ARCs vs actual

Public pension plans are funded in part by state contributions. But, for various reasons, states often fail to make full payments into their pension systems and instead opt to use the money elsewhere in the budget.

The above chart shows the payment history of New Jersey over the last 20 years. The dark blue bars represent the dollar amount the state was required to contribute to the system; the light blue bars show how much the state actually contributed.

The last time New Jersey paid its full pension payment was 1996. Since then, payments have fallen either well short or been non-existent.

New Jersey’s state-run pension systems were collectively 64.5 percent funded and were running a $47.2 billion deficit as of 2013.


Chart credit: New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission report

Fact Check: Has Tom Corbett Been Shorting The Pension System?

Tom Corbett

Tom Corbett has used the campaign trail to paint himself as a pension reformer – Corbett, the incumbent governor of Pennsylvania, says the pension system needs to be overhauled and supports a plan to shift public workers into a 401(k)-style plan.

His opponent, Tom Wolf, disagrees. Wolf says the problem isn’t the current system—it’s the current governor. He says the system’s current funding problem stems from Corbett’s failure to make required payments into the system.

The issue was brought up during a debate Wednesday night. WESA reports:

Wolf argued that the pension system itself is not flawed, but that the state needs to put more money into fully funding its pension obligations.

“Governors have not adequately paid into that fund,” Wolf said. “We need to figure out a way to do that, pay that debt, because that balance keeps coming up. I plan to do something about that. I will not keep delaying payment, I will do something.”

Corbett took issue with Wolf’s assertion that his and previous administrations have not adequately paid into the system, and instead said it’s the system itself that needs to be overhauled.

“We do have to, though, bite the bullet and start reforming how we’re paying into that system, rather than continuing to say we’re just going to continue to pay at $610 million new dollars each year for the next, I think it’s 25 years,” Corbett said.

Corbett seemed to dodge the issue of failing to pay the state’s actuarially required contributions (ARC). But Wolf has a point.

CREDIT: Ballotpedia
CREDIT: Ballotpedia

Since 2008, Pennsylvania has consistently shorted its largest pension funds.

The state has gone above and beyond when it comes to making payments to the Municipal Retirement System (MRS); but that system is also much smaller than the others.

Both candidates have points here. Wolf is right that Corbett has shorted the pension system. But while making full payments would be a step in the right direction, it wouldn’t solve the system’s funding crisis on its own.