New Orleans Looks for Ways to Cut Pension Costs

cutting one dollar bill in half

The board of the New Orleans Municipal Employees Retirement System (NOMERS) – the city’s largest public pension fund – is considering a series of cost cutting measures, some that involve trimming benefits.

Under consideration: increasing employee contributions and raising the retirement age, according to NOLA.com. The changes are currently being examined the system’s actuary.

More from NOLA.com:

New Orleans Municipal Employees Retirement System board at a January meeting released a list of the potential alterations, which included raising the retirement age and increasing the amount of money employees are required to contribute. The board forwarded the possible changes to its actuary to evaluate how they would impact the health of the pension fund, benefits for employees and the city’s budget.

[…]

Nearly all the proposals it released at the January meeting would affect only future employees. That means the city wouldn’t see much relief for many years.

Raising the employee-contribution rate from the current 6 percent of salary to 7 or 8 percent is among the only proposals by the board that would affect current workers and immediately impact the unfunded liability.

The board is examining these changes under request from City Council President Stacy Head, according to NOLA.com, who asked the board last year to come up with a list of possible benefit changes.

Pension costs are eating up increasingly large chunks of the city budget, and it’s likely the Council is looking for ways to cut those costs in the future.

Louisiana considers pension benefits as a contract between employee and employer. It’s likely, then, that legal action would accompany any benefit changes.

 

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Milwaukee County Decides Against Reducing Future Pension Payments

cut up one hundred dollar bill

Last week, Pension360 covered the story of Milwaukee County pensioners who were facing benefit reductions because they had previously taken government advice that led to pension overpayments.

The County was considering docking over $10 million in future benefits from 217 public workers and retirees.

But the County Board’s finance committee on Thursday decided to scrap the plan, because they feared the lawsuits it might bring.

Board members were also sympathetic to pensioners who accepted overpayments only because they took the advice of county retirement planners.

More from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

The Milwaukee County Board’s finance committee on Thursday decided against reducing future pension overpayments amounting to an estimated $10.3 million to 217 current and future retirees.

The committee instead unanimously recommended approval of a Pension Board proposal to retroactively change county ordinances that would result in keeping the improperly high payments flowing to the group. The vote was 8-0 to adopt the Pension Board’s proposal.

An explanation of how the pensioners ended up receiving overpayments in the first place:

The group of 217 had been allowed to make purchases of extra pension credits — known as “buybacks” or “buy-ins” — under a benefit enhancement strategy.

By converting time they had worked as seasonal county lifeguards, parks workers and other part-time employees, the workers boosted their pensions under a program that skirted county laws and federal tax rules, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in 2007.

The strategy made some workers eligible for earlier retirement, free retiree health care and even a 25% pension bonus and lump sum payment.

In 2007, retirement system administrators and the Pension Board determined certain purchases of pension credits had been done in error. Board rules no longer permit purchases of pension credits.

Read more on the story here.

 

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Would a “Buyback” Program Help Ease Pennsylvania’s Pension Problems?

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is shouldering $47 billion of pension debt, according to the Governor’s Office, and that figure doesn’t include the unfunded liabilities of the state’s municipal pension systems.

No easy solution awaits. But Thomas A. Firey, managing editor of economics journal Regulation, writes on Philly.com that a “buyback” program is worth considering.

Firey writes:

The deficits have prompted calls to cut benefits, but workers and their unions reply that these promises were made in good faith – and written into contracts. It’s hard to disagree. Also hard to dispute are the concerns of state residents who point to an already heavy tax burden that makes it hard to provide for their families, let alone public employees. Finally, there are those who worry that essential services could be cut in any pension fix.

[…]

Harrisburg should create a program that would allow individual state and local public employees to voluntarily sell back some of their pension benefits in exchange for cash. If engineered correctly (perhaps using an auction mechanism), the overall savings to taxpayers could be very large, even if the state has to borrow money for the payouts.

If this program were implemented, everyone would win. Workers who sign up would get more immediate compensation, while non-participating members would see no change in their retirement benefits. The long-term pension cost to taxpayers would be reduced, and lawmakers would be under less pressure to cut government programs.

The new governor, state legislators, and union leaders should consider this option if they are serious about addressing the commonwealth’s pension crisis.

Read the full piece, including a description of a similar initiative’s fate in Illinois, here.

 

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Illinois Unions Challenging Reform Law Ask Supreme Court to Slow Down

Illinois

When the lawsuit against Illinois’ pension reform law went to the Supreme Court, the Court obliged the state’s request for an expedited process.

The state, win or lose, wants the court’s decision as soon as possible.

But unions and public employees fighting the law are now asking the court to slow down the process. They say they need more time to respond to arguments presented in briefs filed by nearly a dozen groups in support of the law last week.

From Northern Public Radio:

Unions and others fighting to prevent Illinois’ pension law from taking effect are asking the state Supreme Court to ease up on its accelerated timeline.A Sangamon County judge ruled the measure unconstitutional. But Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed paperwork earlier this month that says the state can use “police powers” to cut pensions.

Ten other groups filed briefs backing Madigan’s position.

John Fitzgerald is an attorney who represents retired public school teachers. He says lawyers need more time to respond to all of those additional arguments.

Fitzgerald says his side is still confident reducing benefits is illegal.

“Although we believe that the arguments raised by the amici need to be evaluated and responded to, we do not believe that any of those arguments have any merit; we do not believe that the amici have raised any arguments that should change the outcome of this case.”

The lawyers are asking for an additional month to file briefs with the court. Currently, the briefs are due Feb. 16.

Christie Mum on Pension Specifics During “State of the State” Address

Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced this summer that another round of pension reforms would be coming to the state, and he all but promised that benefit cuts would be part of the deal.

But details have been sparse since then. It was thought Christie might use his “State of the State” speech to unveil a few more details about what’s coming down the pension reform pipeline.

But his address offered few specifics.

From NJ.com:

In his fifth State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie called the state’s struggling pension system “an insatiable beast.”

But despite rumors swirling the past week that he might use the platform to unveil a massive pension overhaul based on the recommendations from his pension commission, Christie offered little on how he intended to tame it.

The governor, who spoke at length about drug treatment and a Camden turnaround, dedicated roughly 10 percent of his remarks to the pension system without delivering any solutions.

“This is not just a New Jersey problem. This is a national problem,” he said. “A long-term solution and sustainable future for our pension and health benefit plans are difficult but worthy things to achieve.”

While crediting his 2011 reforms with saving the taxpayers more than $120 billion over the next three decades, Christie said pensions remain one of New Jersey’s “largest and most immediate” obligations.

“But the fact that is that while we have been making up ground, the pension fund is underfunded because of poor decisions by governors and legislatures of both parties over decades, not years,” he said. “These sins of the past have made the system unaffordable. But we do not have the luxury to ignore this problem.”

[…]

“Think of it this way, in order to close the current shortfall in just the pension system alone, every family in New Jersey would have to write a check for $12,000,” he said. “That is the nature of long-term entitlements which grow faster than the economy, and in that regard our problem here in New Jersey is not that different from Washington’s entitlement problem.”

Over the summer, Christie put together a panel to review the state’s pension system and offer recommendations for reform. But the committee has been silent for months, although Christie said they are “hard at work”.

 

Photo By Walter Burns [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

City Council Shakeup Could Affect Jacksonville Pension Reform

palm tree

Jacksonville Councilman Johnny Gaffney is stepping down from his post next month.

Gaffney was likely to vote in favor of the city’s pension reform measure. But with his departure, the chances of the measure passing become murkier.

There are 19 seats on the Council, and the measure needs 10 votes to pass.

From the Florida Union-Tribune:

Because Gaffney ran for the Legislature — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — he must step down from the council next month, making Feb. 10 his last City Council meeting.

There’s no guarantee that the council will be ready by then to cast votes on pension reform, so Gaffney might be off the council before the final decision.

Gaffney’s impending departure is just one of the moving pieces Brown faces as he strives to secure 10 votes on the 19-member council. Some City Council members have already said a counter-offer made last week by the Police and Fire Pension Fund is dead on arrival.

[…]

The pension legislation approved 16-3 by the City Council last month would let City Council impose further benefit cuts on current police and firefighters in three years.

The pension fund’s counter-offer would prevent the council from unilaterally imposing further benefit cuts for 10 years. The pension fund called that a big concession because it shortens the existing agreement running through 2030.

City Councilman Bill Gulliford said that, in his view, three years is the maximum term for benefits allowed by state law, so it’s a non-starter for him to approve a 10-year provision.

“I’m not going to vote to codify something that most people feel is illegal,” he said. “Some really bright legal minds feel it’s illegal. Every other jurisdiction in the state operates under the three-year directive. What’s so special about our folks? Why do they have to be 10?”

City Council members Bill Bishop, Lori Boyer, John Crescimbeni, and Matt Schellenberg also said they have a real problem with any term longer than three years for pension benefits. Along with Gulliford, they voted in December for the council-approved version of pension reform.

If the reform measure isn’t passed, the city may decide to go directly to unions to negotiate pension changes.

 

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Stakeholders Listening for Hints on Pension Reform in Chris Christie’s Annual Address

Chris Christie

Chris Christie will deliver New Jersey’s “State of the State” address on Tuesday. The question on the minds of lawmakers, labor leaders and public workers is: how much will he reveal about his plans for reforming the state’s pension system?

Christie indicated over the summer that a new round of pension reforms are necessary, and they would likely involve benefit cuts.

But new details have been scarce, and the state’s Pension and Benefit Study Commission hasn’t released its recommendations.

From NJ.com:

When Gov. Chris Christie delivers his 2015 State of the State address Tuesday, lawmakers and public workers will no doubt be listening for remarks on pension reform.

On the eve of that speech, and months after a commission’s report on recommendations for the ailing pension system was expected to be released, legislators, union leaders and lobbyists say they are expecting to hear from the governor on one of the biggest issues facing Trenton. Christie’s office has not yet provided any details about his annual address to the state Legislature.

The governor made mention of the ailing public employee pension system nine times in his 2014 address, proposing to crack down on pension fraud and engage on pension reform.

“If we do not choose to reduce our soaring pension and debt service costs, we will miss the opportunity to improve the lives of every New Jersey citizen, not just a select few,” he said at this time last year.

The debate over pensions heated up again last spring when a budget gap suddenly erupted and Christie cut back on payments that were promised in a highly touted pension reform law he signed in his first term.

Since late summer, recommending ideas about overhauling public worker pensions has been the job of a bipartisan commission Christie designated. The commission issued a report in September laying out the severity of the state’s unfunded pension and health benefit liabilities, but has not released a final report with recommendations. The commission’s chairman Thomas J. Healey did not return calls for comment.

The state is shouldering $83 billion in pension liabilities, as measured by new GASB accounting rules.

 

Photo By Walter Burns [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pension Funding May Be First Fight of 2015 for New Jersey Lawmakers

Chris Christie

At some point in 2015, pension reform will become a hot topic in the New Jersey Legislature. The only question is when the battle will heat up.

From the looks of things, the fight over pension reform could begin sooner than later.

From New Jersey 101.5:

Funding New Jersey’s public employees’ pension system could be the first major fight in 2015 and it will likely pit long-time allies against one another. Gov. Chris Christie is calling for new reform, but state Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) has drawn a line in the sand and said he will support further reform.

“He (Christie) has to fund it. We actually did the things that were necessary to fix it. He needs to fund the pension fund,” Sweeney said. “No matter what changes you make to a pension system, if you don’t meet the financial needs of it at the same time – no fix will work.”

The law required the state to contribute $1.6 billion into the pension system last fiscal year, but Christie paid in only $696 million. He signed an executive order to enable the lesser payment. The payment for this fiscal year was to be $2.25 billion, but the governor said he’ll contribute $681 million.

The governor must make the full $2.25 billion payment this year, according to Sweeney, who acknowledged it will be difficult.

“It’s going to put a lot of pressure on the budget, but we knew it. The big picture here is the lack of growth in the economy and he’s been the governor for five years now so he can’t point fingers at others,” Sweeney said.

[…]

Last fall, Christie began making his case for pension reform. He said it is an important, long-term project.

“It’s something that we can’t ignore because it will first crowd out any other type of investments the state wants to make in important projects around the state, and it will then ultimately bankrupt the state,” Christie said.

Gov. Christie has made it clear that reforms would likely mean further benefit cuts.

Sweeney, on the other hand, is pushing for a funding solution that involves more state money going to the pension system.

 

Photo By Walter Burns [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pension Board to Cast Final Vote on Florida Reforms

palm tree

The board of Jacksonville’s Police and Fire Pension Fund will vote Monday on a pension reform measure that would improve its funding status but also affect member benefits.

The measure was passed by the City Council in early December. More from the Jacksonville Business Journal:

The final status of the pension reform package, which calls for a mix of surging money into the pension fund and cutting benefits, rests with the board, who can either reject it altogether, elect to modify it or accept it.

Rejecting it would kill the legislation, while modifying it would mean that City Council would have to agree to changes proposed by the board.

The city’s latest estimates of the savings the pension reform legislation could bring come to about $1.33 billion over 30 years.

The legislation’s approval, however, will mean nothing unless the city decides how to pay off the $1.6 billion in debt it already owes the pension fund. Some of the suggestions by the city include infusing $300 million to the fund by increasing its and JEA’s annual contribution to the pension fund.

Pension360 will track the outcome of the vote.

 

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Former Enron Trader Continues to Fund Pension Policy Reforms From Behind the Scenes

one dollar bill

Former Enron trader John Arnold has given large amounts of money to various public pension reform initiatives around the county in recent years.

Many of those measures mandate a shift to a 401(k)-style system, or allow benefit cuts.

Most recently, he gave $1 million in support of Proposition 487, a Phoenix ballot measure that would have shifted new city hires into a 401(k)-style system.

From Politico:

When former Enron trader and Texas billionaire John Arnold donated more than $1 million to a November 2014 initiative to reform the public pension system in Phoenix, Ariz., pension activists took notice.

Arnold’s donation to Proposition 487, also known as the Phoenix Pension Reform Act, constituted close to 75 percent of total donations for the ballot measure, which failed. Had it passed, it would have moved new state employees from a defined benefit plan into a less-generous (and less expensive) defined contribution plan such as a 401(k).

Despite his Arizona defeat, no one believes Arnold is done.

Arnold’s money has also been involved in reform initiatives in Kentucky, Rhode Island and California. From Politico:

In the 2014 cycle, Arnold and his wife donated $200,000 to a super PAC that supported Democrat Gina Raimondo’s successful gubernatorial campaign in Rhode Island. As Rhode Island’s state treasurer, Raimondo had enacted pension benefit cuts that cost her union support. Rahm Emanuel, who made similar changes to Chicago’s pension system, also received financial assistance from Arnold.

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, another Democrat, tried, unsuccessfully, to place an initiative on California’s November 2014 state ballot that would have allowed public employers, under specific circumstances, to reduce employee benefits and to increase contributions to underfunded plans. Arnold bankrolled the entire effort, to the tune of $200,000.

According to data compiled by the NPPC, based on donations disclosed on the website of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and on news articles, Arnold has since 2008 spent more than $53 million on pension policy reforms, not all of it in the political realm. (In an email interview with Reuters, Arnold disputed those numbers.)

Other beneficiaries listed include universities and think tanks such as Brookings and the Pew Research Center. Much of the money was spent to support pension reforms, but some was spent on education reform. Both efforts, unions point out, tend to favor benefit cuts to public employees.

[…]

The Arnold Foundation is also participating in the Colorado Pension Project, chaired by former Colorado governors Bill Owens, a Republican, and Richard Lamm, a Democrat. As governor, Lamm drew national headlines 30 years ago when he said that elderly people who were terminally ill had a “duty to die and get out of the way.” (Lamm will turn 80 next year.) The Colorado Pension Project’s website says that recent legislative reforms to the state pension system — which reduced cost of living adjustments, raised the retirement age for new employees and increased employee salary contributions — did not go far enough. McGee said Arnold’s foundation was drawn to the state’s history of “fruitful left ideological discussions.”

Read the full Politico report here.

 

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