Corbett Promises Special Pension Session If Re-Elected

Tom Corbett

Pennsylvania‘s incumbent candidate for governor, Tom Corbett, has made pension reform his campaign’s rallying cry.

But Gov. Corbett’s calls for reform haven’t been met with much enthusiasm. So Corbett announced this week that, if he is re-elected, he will call a special legislative session specifically to deal with pension reform on the state and municipal level.

From New Castle News:

Gov. Tom Corbett, if re-elected this year, plans to call for a special session of the Legislature specifically to deal with Pennsylvania’s pension issues.

He would like to see the meeting address state, municipal and school district concerns.

“I’ve been trying to fight the pension battle,” Corbett, a Republican, said during a meeting with The Tribune-Democrat Friday.

“I don’t know that we’re going to even get the little bit that we’re trying to get now. I’ve already announced, I’m going to call, in my second term, right away, a special session on pensions; not just the state pension, we might as well bring in the municipal pension, too, because I can tell you, all municipalities are coming to us, saying, ‘Take a look at this.’ Is that a big one to bite off? Yes. But, if we don’t do it, who’s going to do it? I know one thing, my opponent (Tom Wolf ) is not going to touch it.”

Pennsylvania has $47 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, according to the state’s budget office.

Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings both cited pension concerns when they dropped the state’s general-obligation debt rating this week.

“The downgrade reflects our view of the state’s diminished financial flexibility and growing expenditure pressures due to inaction on pension reform and limited revenue growth,” S&P said in its report.

Corbett wants to pass a plan that would shift new hires into a hybrid-type plan that more resembles a 401(k) than a defined benefit plan.

Colorado Treasurer Candidates Differ On Pension Reform

Betsy Markey

Reforming Colorado’s largest pension plan, the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), is one of the looming issues in the state’s upcoming Treasurer election. And the candidates have very different takes on the situation.

Betsy Markey (D) is a former congresswoman who says she’ll fight for financial transparency but isn’t making pensions a central issue of her campaign. From the Durango Herald:

Markey is not overly concerned [about PERA], pointing out that legislative steps have been taken to put PERA on a sustainable path. She said the PERA board voted to lower the anticipated rate of return from 8 to 7.5 percent.

“When you’re looking into the future, the PERA board itself expects to close that unfunded liability gap within the next 30 years,” Markey said. “And they don’t expect that there will be a time in the next 30 years where they will ever not be able to fully meet their obligations to retirees.”

Incumbent Walker Stapleton (R), meanwhile, has made pension reform one of the central issues of his campaign and tenure as Treasurer. Still, he admits the state’s unfunded pension liabilities grew under his watch.

Walker responded to Markey’s position on pensions:

Stapleton said Markey’s position suggests an “alarming lack of knowledge for public-finance issues.

“PERA’s liability has only grown since I’ve been in office.” Stapleton said.

He added: “She said that PERA was fine, and I’m obsessed with it. … But she would also lower the rate of return for PERA? You can’t be for lowering the rate of return and not for additional work to be done.”


Stapleton has found himself at odds with the state employees’ union and those who manage retirement benefits.

He filed a lawsuit seeking to open the books of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association fund, and he has repeatedly fought to lower the projected rate of return on investments. He has also advocated for lowering cost-of-living raises and increasing the retirement age.

As of 2012, Colorado’s PERA was 63 percent funded and was shouldering $23 billion of unfunded liabilities.

Ohio Auditor: New Pension Accounting Rules Could “Distort” State’s Financial Condition

Balancing The Account

Ohio’s top auditor, Dave Yost, publicly stated earlier this month that new GASB accounting rules – ones that change the way pension liabilities are reported – would hurt Ohio and its local governments.

In an op-ed on the Heartland Institute website, he explains why. From the piece:

Ohio is one of six states treating pensions as a “simple property right.” By Ohio statute, the amount a public employer must contribute to its pension obligation is capped. If a portion of the pension liabilities of the state’s five systems continues to be unfunded, the impact could be shouldered by a combination of the local government, individual employees, reforms from current contributors, or capital shifts from non-mandated benefits (such as health insurance).

The concern in Ohio is that the GASB 68 requirement for local governments to report this liability could dramatically distort the financial condition of a local government. It is important to keep in mind that this new standard creates an accounting liability, rather than a legal liability.

In Ohio, there are no legal means to enforce the unfunded liability of the pension system as against the public employer.

Upon receiving this new standard and recognizing the challenges that GASB 68 poses, my office got to work to determine how Ohio’s local governments can accurately report their financial positions while also following accounting standards.

To comply with GASB 68, our office suggests Ohio governments report the proportionate share of the unfunded pension liability, as a separate line item on the entity’s Statement of Net Position, with the detail of multiple pension systems’ participation in the footnotes, as necessary.

Governments should also include language in their Management Discussion & Analysis (MD&A), explaining Ohio’s legal environment and the limitations on enforcement of the unfunded pension liability as against the local government.

Yost also claims that ratings agencies, including Moody’s and Fitch, could downgrade the state’s bond ratings due to the new way liabilities are reported. But the downgrades wouldn’t be fair, Yost argues, because the financial health of the state is the same even if the numbers look different.

Yost testified earlier this month in front of the GASB regarding the negative impact the rules could have on the state.


Photo by www.SeniorLiving.Org

Eric Madiar: Illinois Reform Law Is Unconstitutional

U.S. Constitution

Eric M. Madiar, the Chief Legal Counsel to Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, has written an op-ed today opposing Illinois’ pension reform law on the grounds that the law is unconstitutional. An excerpt:

Anyone following the pension reform debate knows that Illinois has long diverted the moneys needed to properly fund its pension systems to avoid tax increases, cuts in public services or both. Some may not admit it, but they know it. They also know this practice is the primary reason why the systems are underwater.

Since much of my time over the last three years has been spent on our State’s pension problem, I wanted to find out how long it’s been that way and how long we have known about it. Well, as chronicled in an article I wrote now published by Chicago-Kent College of Law, I have an answer.

1917. No, that’s not a typo.

In 1917, the Illinois Pension Laws Commission warned State leaders in a report that the retirement systems were nearing “insolvency” and “moving toward crisis” because of the State’s failure to properly fund the systems. This nearly century old report also recommended action so that the pension obligations of that generation would not be passed on to future generations.

The 1917 report’s warning and funding recommendation went unheeded, as were similar warnings and funding recommendations found in decades of public pension reports issued before and after the Pension Clause was added to the Illinois Constitution in 1970.


…As early as 1979, Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s advised the State that it would lose its AAA bond rating if the State did not begin tackling its increasing unfunded pension liabilities. Also, in 1982, Governor Jim Thompson succeeded in passing legislation making pension funding far more dependent upon stock market returns to stave off higher State pension contributions.

Further, a 1985 task force report noted that Standard and Poor’s reduced its bond rating for Illinois from AAA to AA+ due to the State’s “deferral of pension obligations,” and that another rating agency viewed the State’s pension funding as a future financial “time bomb.” Finally, the much heralded 1995 pension funding plan was designed to increase the State’s unfunded liabilities and postpone the State’s actuarially-sound pension contributions until 2034.

Given this well-documented history, it’s extremely hard to legitimately believe that our State’s current situation is so surprising that the Illinois Constitution can be ignored and pension benefits unilaterally cut. As noted in my previous legal research, the Pension Clause does not support such a result.

The entire piece can be read here.


Photo by Mr.TinDC via Flickr CC License

Oregon PERS Reforms: The Supreme Court Will See You Now


Two major reform measures are finally ready for their day in the Oregon Supreme Court.

Public employees are challenging the 2013 reforms –which reduced the state’s unfunded pension liabilities by $5 billion by cutting COLAs and scaling back benefits – on the grounds that the measures broke contracts protected under the state’s constitution.

This week, both sides submitted their written briefings to the Supreme Court. Reported by the Oregonian:

Monday marked the deadline for written briefings to the Oregon Supreme Court, where public employees are challenging the legality of two pension reform bills enacted last year.

The laws reduced retirees’ annual cost of living increases and eliminated a benefit bump-up for out-of-state retirees that don’t pay taxes in Oregon. As such, they helped staunch the precipitous rise in required contributions to the system since the 2008 financial crisis decimated the fund’s investment portfolio and opened up a $16 billion funding gap.

Oral arguments will be held Oct. 14. Each side will have one hour. After that, public employers, the governor, lawmakers, employees and retirees can hold their collective breath, with a decision anticipated during expected in time for the 2015 Legislative session.

A quick breakdown of what we can expect each side to argue, from the Oregonian:

The Legislature referred any challenges to the bills directly to the Supreme Court to expedite the legal decision process. Public employees appealed the changes, arguing in briefs filed earlier this summer that the benefit changes violate the contract clauses of the Oregon and U.S. constitutions and amount to an illegal taking of private property without compensation.

The state and public employers maintain that the cost of living adjustments, contrary to previous decisions by the court, is not an immutable part of the contract. And even if it is, they maintain it can be changed, as the Legislature has done previously.

Likewise, they argue that the extra payments to cover beneficiaries’ state tax liabilities aren’t part of the contract and can be eliminated for out-of-state retirees who don’t pay Oregon taxes.

Legislators briefly weighed enacting another round of pension reforms this year, but they decided against it.

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