Urban Institute Endorses Bill That Would Turn Over Pension Assets To Insurance Companies

United States Capitol Dome

A bill that’s spend the last year gathering dust in Congress has been given new life this week after the Urban Institute gave the bill it’s top grade, saying the proposal “really addresses the retirement security issue”.

The bill, authored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would let local governments turn over the assets of their pension plans to insurance companies. The insurance companies would then make payments to retirees. More details from Wonkblog:

On Wednesday, Hatch’s proposal, aimed at getting local governments and states off the hook for future pension liabilities, got a big thumbs-up from the non-partisan Urban Institute.

After reviewing the plan, the research organization gave the idea its top grade, saying it eliminates a troublesome financial risk for state and local governments, protects workers who change jobs frequently, and rewards young workers–all while providing a steady stream of income for retirees.

“Unlike any other plan I have seen, it really addresses the retirement security issue, the funding problem, and it provides incentives to allow employers to attract and retain a productive workforce,” said Richard Johnson, director of the Urban Institute’s Retirement Policy Center. “It is hard to balance those three objectives.”

The Hatch bill is similar to a financial maneuver taken by several big corporations, from General Motors and Ford to Heinz and Verizon, which have moved to shed pension liabilities in recent years. For local governments and states, the unfunded liabilities are huge, ranging anywhere from $1.4 trillion to more than $4 trillion, depending on the assumptions plugged in by actuaries.

As it stands, a study of 150 plans by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that the plans have just 72 percent of the assets on hand needed to cover future liabilities, a figure that drops to just under 65 percent if new accounting standards are used.

Insurance companies love the bill. But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea, writes Michael Fletcher:

It has been panned by municipal employee unions and their allies, who worry that payments will not be as generous as current pension schemes, particularly for long-tenured workers. Johnson noted, however, that many pension plans tend to shortchange workers who stay on the job fewer than 20 years, and he said Hatch’s plan would address that, although workers who stayed on the job longer would get smaller payments than their predecessors.

Still, some critics have called it “a solution in search of a problem,” a characterization that has left Hatch incredulous.

“My bill is not a solution in search of a problem, and it is certainly not meant to be an attack on anyone or anything,” Hatch said during a Capitol Hill event Wednesday. “It is meant to offer and alternative path to employers who want to continue delivering lifetime retirement income for their workers in a world where that is becoming increasingly difficult.”

The bill wouldn’t force the hand of state and local funds; governments would have the choice of handing over their assets to insurance companies, but it would be voluntary.


Photo by: “US Capitol dome Jan 2006″ by Diliff. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Pennsylvania Schools Feeling Pension Pinch

Pension payments for school districts have increased significantly in the last decade.  CREDIT: Lancaster Online
Pension payments required of school districts have increased significantly in the last decade.
CREDIT: Lancaster Online

Pension costs have skyrocketed over the last decade for Pennsylvania public school districts, as the state’s pension liabilities and the contributions required from schools have both increased dramatically. From Lancaster Online:

The key concern is the underfunded Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System. Due mainly to past actions by the Legislature — under both Democratic and Republican control — the statewide pension program currently carries a nearly $50 billion liability.

To make that up, districts have seen the amount they’re forced to pay skyrocket over the past several years.

– Elanco has seen its contributions rise from $350,000 in 2004 to $3.1 million in 2014.

– Lampeter-Strasburg had its payments grow from $325,000 in 2004 to $2.2 million in 2014.

– Hempfield has stretched those costs from nearly $1.5 million in 2004 to $5.4 million in 2014.

– Penn Manor was forced to increase that portion of the budget from just over $1 million in 2004 to $6.3 million in 2014.

Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) was 66.3 percent funded as of 2012.

Will Villa Park Cut Ties With CalPERS?

Villa Park California

The California city Villa Park could vote today to remove itself from the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS).

The decision comes in the face of mounting pension costs and calls for increased transparency in local budgets, which would shine more light on California cities’ unfunded pension liabilities.

First reported by the Voice of OC:

The Villa Park City Council could vote Tuesday to end its contract with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System or CalPERS, the world’s sixth largest pension provider, in an effort to reduce increasing pension costs.

The CalPERS move follows an Orange County Grand Jury report that called for greater budget transparency in Orange County cities.

The report indicates Orange County cities’ unfunded pension liabilities have been increasing on an annual basis since 2007.

There have been increased calls for budget transparency in recent years as cities and towns in the CalPERS system have shouldered more liabilities. A recent report called for all cities to put their budgets online and include CalPERS cost projections in all budgets going forward.

Villa Park has millions in unfunded pension liabilities. From Voice of OC:

For its pension costs, Villa Park, a north OC bedroom community of about 5,000, has a shortfall of about $3.5 million, leaving 17.5 percent of its employee pension costs unfunded, according to the grand jury report.

Gov. Jerry Brown enacted sweeping pension reforms in 2012 aimed at reducing pension payments for most public employees hired after 2013.

But because many public workers were hired before 2013, they are grandfathered into the old system, and reforms likely won’t make a dent for another decade, the grand jury report states.

Villa Park could vote on leaving CalPERS as early as 6:30 pm (Pacific Time) Tuesday. The city wouldn’t be the first to leave CalPERS; Canyon Lake, a city of 11,000, left the system in 2013 due to increasing employee contributions.

Union Coalition Wants Illinois Court To Act Faster In Case Against Reform Law


A coalition of some of the largest labor groups in Illinois filed a motion today calling on the court to speed up its ruling regarding the constitutionality of Illinois’ pension reform law.

The coalition, We Are One Illinois, says the Supreme Court’s July decision—where the court ruled retirees’ health benefits are protected under the state’s constitution—confirms that Illinois’ pension reform law is illegal.

From CapitolFax:

Yesterday, the We Are One Illinois coalition, along with other plaintiffs, filed a motion in Sangamon County urging the Circuit Court to enter judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor on the State’s affirmative defense in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Kanerva v. Weems. The We Are One Illinois coalition and other plaintiffs assert that the Kanerva decision confirms that the Pension Protection Clause in the Illinois Constitution is absolute and without exception, even with respect to the fiscal circumstances alleged by the State in its defense.

Illinois says its dire fiscal situation gives it the authority to cut to pension benefits, even if they are constitutionally protected. From Reuters:

The state has contended that its sovereign powers allow it to act in a fiscal emergency. Illinois has a $100 billion unfunded pension liability and the country’s worst funded state retirement system. Illinois’s credit ratings are also the lowest among U.S. states.

But the court’s July decision doesn’t bode well for the state’s case. At the time, the court wrote:

“[I]t is clear that if something qualifies as a benefit of the enforceable contractual relationship resulting from membership in one of the State’s pension or retirement systems, it cannot be diminished or impaired … Giving the language of article XIII, section 5, its plain and ordinary meaning, all of these benefits, including subsidized health care, must be considered to be benefits of membership in a pension or retirement system of the State and, therefore, within that provision’s protections.”

We Are One Illinois issued the following statement after filing the motion:

“The Kanerva decision confirms what we have always argued, that the state’s constitutional language guards against any diminishment or impairment of pension benefits that Senate Bill 1 imposes. We believe, then, that the State’s defense is without merit and so have asked the Court in this motion to rule in our favor on the State’s defense that seeks to justify Senate Bill 1. We maintain that the constitution protects the hard-earned and promised retirement savings of our members and remain ready to work with any legislator willing to develop a fair and legal solution to our state’s challenges.”


Photo credit: “Gfp-illinois-springfield-capitol-and-sky” by Yinan Chen, Via Wikimedia Commons

Federal Government to Hone In On State and Local Pensions


The Treasury Department announced the opening today of a new office, and chief among its responsibilities will be examining state and local pensions. Though the specific mandates of the office are unclear, the State and Local Finance Office will examine the problems facing state and local pension systems and serve as a “resource for retirement planning”, according to its Director.

From Reuters:

State and Local Finance Office Director Kent Hiteshew told a meeting of the Council of State Governments that he had appointed the chief investment officer of Maryland’s pension fund as a special adviser who “will substantially strengthen our office’s understanding of the critical challenges facing a system upon which approximately 23 million Americans depend … for their retirement security.”

Saying that state and local pensions now have enough money to cover only 72 percent of their costs, in comparison to nearly 100 percent in 2000, Hiteshew added that very few pensions are well-funded.

“While the current underfunding started prior to the Great Recession, this was exacerbated by both market forces and trying fiscal times during the last few years,” he added.

Hiteshew’s office will study the state of public pensions and help retirement systems evaluate their financial conditions, and it will look into the growing costs of retiree healthcare.

Public pension systems in the US are, on average, 72 percent funded. In 2000, nearly all systems were 100 percent funded, according to Hiteshew.