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

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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.

 

Photo by c_ambler via Flickr CC License

Are Phoenix Pension Costs Really Rising by $18 Million a Year?

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Phoenix voters struck down a pension reform measure, Prop. 487, on Election Day. But in the weeks since the defeat, several local lawmakers have vocally called for a renewed discussion of pension reform.

Perhaps the most prominent of those voices is Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who supported Proposition 487 and wants the conversation about pension reform to continue.

The Councilman has claimed that the city’s pension costs rise by $18 million every year—and those costs will have a major impact on the funding of other public services.

Eighteen million dollars is a lot of money. But is that claim true? The Arizona Republic fact-checked the figure:

In 2011, state pension-reform laws raised the employee contribution to 11.05 percent, and it will continue increasing until it hits 11.65 percent in 2015-16. The city contributes whatever is needed to completely fund the pensions.

Poorer-than-expected investment returns on both pension funds during the recession raised the city’s contribution in recent years. In 2010-11, Phoenix spent approximately $93.9 million on general pensions, $60.4 million on police pensions and $30 million on fire pensions.

By the 2014-15 budget, the city’s planned contributions had risen to $129 million for general pensions, $91 million for police pensions and $46 million for fire pensions.

DiCiccio’s $18 million figure comes from a projection made before the city approved its budget. It forecast Phoenix would spend $271 million on pensions, $18 million more than it budgeted in 2013.

However, when the city finalized its budget, the numbers had changed. Phoenix set aside $266 million for pension contributions, $13 million more than in 2013.

So, the $18 million figure isn’t exactly right. But the sentiment of the statement is generally correct – the city’s pension costs have risen by millions of dollar each year.

The Arizona Republic also checked DiCiccio’s statement on pension costs hurting funding for public services:

Overall city spending on fire, parks and police has increased in recent years, but the city has also hired fewer police officers and firefighters. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association estimates that the city has 550 fewer police officers now than it did at its peak employment in 2009.

The United Phoenix Fire Fighters didn’t have similar numbers available, but Phoenix went from 1,671 firefighters in 2009 to 1,578 in 2012.

Staffing cuts caused Phoenix police officers to expand their patrol areas, DiCiccio said.

Phoenix also delayed more than $200 million in capital bond projects in 2010. Voter-approved bond projects allow construction of new public facilities, such as parks or libraries, or renovating existing buildings.

Phoenix’s pension payments have grown at a steeper rate than funding for such services.

Overall, the Arizona Republic said DiCiccio’s statement were “mostly true.”

Moody’s: Voter Rejection of Prop. 487 Is “Credit Negative” For Phoenix

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Last week, Phoenix voters shot down Proposition 487, the ballot measure that would have shifted the city’s non-public safety new hires into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

Many public workers, and the city’s mayor, were happy with the result. But one credit rating agency was not.

A Moody’s report released Tuesday said the measure would have improved the city’s finances, and the results of the vote are a “credit negative” for Phoenix.

From the Arizona Republic:

“The vote is a credit negative for the city,” which is grappling with a $4.4 billion adjusted net pension liability, said Moody’s Investors Service. Phoenix has the sixth-highest adjusted pension shortfall relative to revenues among 50 large cities tracked by Moody’s.

[…]

According to the update by Moody’s analysts Tom Aaron and Don Steed, Phoenix actuaries projected the new plan would have increased city contributions by $358 million over 20 years but with savings that would have exceeded those outlays, especially if the underlying investments didn’t perform well.

The ballot measure could have saved the city up to $1.9 billion over 20 years, according to Moody’s, citing a city-council analysis. Cost savings would have derived from limiting the types of pay used to calculate benefits — which leads to the costly practice of “pension spiking” — eliminating supplemental retirement plans offered by the city and calculating pension benefits by spreading them over more years of employee salary, which tends to lower the payout.

But Moody’s admitted the measure would have incurred some extra costs if it had passed. Among the costs: legal expenses. From the Arizona Republic:

On the other hand, Moody’s noted that the measure, had it passed, likely would have triggered costly legal challenges. For example, one part of the proposition would have required only one retirement plan to be offered to newly hired employees, including those in public safety. That would have conflicted with a state law mandating participation in the Public Safety Personnel Retirement Plan, which covers police and fire employees throughout the state.

Moody’s didn’t change the city’s credit rating, however. It remains at Aa1.

Phoenix Pension Measure Voted Down, But City Leaders Say Reform Debate Not Over

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On Tuesday, Phoenix residents handily voted down Proposition 487, the ballot measure that would have shifted most new hires into a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

The Mayor was an opponent of the measure and called it “too extreme”; but some Phoenix leaders, even the ones that didn’t support Prop 487, are determined to continue the conversation on pension reform.
From the Arizona Republic:

Mayor Greg Stanton called the victory one of the greatest comebacks in Phoenix history. The group advocating for Prop. 487 had a major lead in the beginning, according to polling by both sides, and outspent the city unions, but city workers took to the streets and seized on concerns it could negatively impact public-safety workers.

However, other city leaders said the outcome must not signal the end of the pension-reform conversation. They said the city still has work to do to address rising costs that add to its budget shortfalls, setting the table for a debate over alternative reforms in the coming months.

“If the fiscal problems are not fixed, you will continue to see more cuts in service and higher taxes and fees,” said Councilman Sal DiCiccio, a vocal supporter of the initiative. “It’s making it harder and harder to deliver quality services.”

[…]

Taxpayers’ tab for the city pension system, not including police officers and firefighters, soared to $129 million this year, up from $27.8 million in fiscal 2002. At the same time, the city raised taxes and fees and cut employee compensation to balance its budget deficits.

And the city will likely face another budget deficit heading into the next fiscal year. Its costs for all employee pensions increased by more than $18 million this year alone. City leaders expect that trend will continue, at least in the near term.

“Now it’s time for us to step forward and do some reforms,” said Councilwoman Thelda Williams, who opposed Prop. 487. “I just never believed that (ballot measure) was the mechanism for us to do it.”

But there are obstacles to pushing through a new reform measure, especially since the city passed one as recently as 2013. From the Arizona Republic:

Any efforts for additional reform could face push-back from some City Council and labor leaders who contend the city addressed the problem with a 2013 ballot initiative.

In 2013, voters passed a requirement that municipal workers hired after July 1 of last year split pension-fund contributions 50-50 with the city and work longer before retiring, moves expected to help save $596 million over 25 years, according to the city.

The city also took steps to combat the practice of “pension spiking,” generally seen as the artificial inflation of a city employee’s income toward the end of a career to boost retirement benefits.

Phoenix’s new contracts with its employee unions end the controversial practice of spiking for police officers and firefighters but only cap it for other city workers, saving taxpayers an estimated $233 million over 25 years.

Prop 487 was shot down by voters by a margin of 56-44.

Voters Reject Phoenix Pension Overhaul

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The controversial Phoenix ballot measure Proposition 487, which would have transferred all the city’s non-public safety new hires into a 401(k)-style system, has been struck down by voters.

From Reuters:

In a big victory for city labor unions, voters rejected Prop. 487 by a margin of 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent, according to results posted online by the Maricopa County Recorder/Elections Office.

The measure proposed to end the city’s traditional defined-benefit pension plan for new workers, shifting them to a plan dominant in the private sector, with employees pay a far greater share of the cost. Existing workers could have kept their current pensions.

The initiative was one of this year’s biggest test cases pushed by pension-reform advocates, including Texas billionaire and former Enron executive John Arnold, who have argued that traditional pension plans are an increasingly unaffordable burden for cash-strapped state and local governments.

The measure, by the city council’s own admission, would have cut retirement benefits significantly for new hires.

The city’s non-public safety pension fund is 64.2 percent funded.

Phoenix Lawmakers Weigh In On Proposition 487

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When Phoenix voters go to the polls today, they will decide the fate of one of the most controversial ballot measures in the country: Proposition 487.

The measure would close of the city’s defined-benefit system to new hires and shift them into a 401(k)-style plan.

Public safety workers are excluded, but unions say death and disability benefits could still be reduced.

The Arizona Republic asked city leaders from both sides of the aisle to weigh in on the bill:

“In 2013, I was proud to co-chair the city’s pension reform committee that successfully passed $700 million in savings. That reform passed the right way — considered by a citizen panel and approved with more than 80 percent of the vote. Prop. 487 was written and funded by dark, out-of-state money, with no local consideration or feedback. If it passes, it will undo all the work we did last year, and the city estimates that it will cost taxpayers more than $350 million. Phoenix should vote no on Prop.487.”

Daniel Valenzula, District 5, parts of west and central Phoenix

“Assumption of risk has been largely ignored except for Bob Robb’s recent analysis. The pension of former City Manager David Cavazos illustrates the importance of this issue. Although I voted against his large salary increase, council action raised his pension to approaching $250,000 per year for life, starting at age 53. If the economy goes bad, if an emergency arises, the city still owes approximately $250,000 per year. Another individual would need about $5million set aside (never to be spent because of an economic downturn, a family emergency or anything else) earning 5 percent every year to match that pension.”

Jim Waring, vice mayor (District 2), northeast Phoenix

“Voting yes on Prop. 487 brings fiscal accountability back to the city of Phoenix. Our city is in a financial crisis. Pension costs are cutting into services and causing new tax increases. Phoenix is short more than 500 police officers, and the politicians imposed a new water tax to pay for increasing pension costs. Prop. 487 stops the financial bleeding. Without Prop. 487, you will see more cuts in service and higher taxes. We could add 150 new police officers if we just stopped pension spiking alone. Pension spiking costs you more than $19 million per year. Please vote yes on Prop.487.”

Sal DiCiccio, District 6, Ahwatukee and east Phoenix

“If Prop. 487 passes, Phoenix would be the only government employer in Arizona and one of the few in the nation that does not offer a defined benefit plan. This presents a disadvantage in attracting quality employees and will deter current public employees in considering Phoenix as an employment option. The public sector already faces challenges due to less competitive wages. One of our attracting factors is pension benefits. Our city is additionally disadvantaged since we increased our retirement eligibility rule of 80 to 87, and research shows that lowering our pension benefits will be yet another detriment to the employment packages we offer.”

Michael Nowakowski, District 7, southwest Phoenix and parts of downtown

“Voters considering Prop. 487 should make no mistake: This measure will cost the city millions of dollars we don’t have, and every dollar spent on this shoddily drafted ballot initiative is a dollar taken away from the other priorities of the city: flood control, better streets, hiring new police officers, and other vital city services. Reasonable minds can disagree about Proposition 487 on many levels, but in the short-term, the evidence is clear: Proposition 487 is expensive. Our city is in a very difficult financial situation, and we simply cannot afford Prop. 487.”

Kate Gallego, District 8, southeast Phoenix and parts of downtown

See Pension360’s previous coverage of Proposition 487 here.

Video: A Closer Look At Phoenix’s Proposition 487

Proposition 487 is a Phoenix ballot measure that would close off the city’s defined-benefit pension plan for new hires and instead shift them into a 401(k)-style system. The measure would also prohibit pension “spiking” practices.

Prop. 487 has been surrounded by debate about its true cost, and whether it would reduce death and disability benefits for public safety workers — even though the measure is not intended to change public safety benefits.

The video [above] tackles these issues, and others, in an analysis of the measure.

Would Phoenix’s Proposition 487 Hurt Public Safety Workers?

In exactly one week, Phoenix voters will determine the fate of Proposition 487 – the controversial ballot measure that would, among other things, end the city’s defined-benefit plan for all new hires and shift them into a 401(k)-style plan.

The measure excludes public safety workers, so nothing would change for police and firefighters. Or would it?

In recent weeks, a fiery debate has emerged over whether Prop 487 would actually harm the retirement security of the city’s public safety workers.

Dustin Gardiner at the Arizona Republic writes:

Hundreds of firefighters and police officers chant “No on 487!” outside an upscale Biltmore office tower, rallying against a ballot initiative they contend will gut their most critical benefits.

They say the measure…would jeopardize their retirement security and death and disability benefits.

That dire situation they portrayed at the protest earlier this month — suggesting Prop. 487 will eviscerate the pensions of officers and firefighters and leave families of fallen first responders without benefits — is improbable given that state law prohibits it.

Nevertheless, the hotly disputed claim has become the dominant argument in the final stretches of the campaign over the measure, which would close Phoenix’s employee-pension ­system for new hires and replace it with a 401(k)-type plan. The initiative is on the Nov. 4 ballot for city voters.

[…]

“Given that police officers and firefighters don’t receive Social Security and judges are apt to make unpredictable rulings, we refuse to take such risks with the public safety of our community,” leaders of the city’s police and fire unions wrote in a joint letter this week.

The Arizona Republic editorial board published a piece on Monday calling the arguments of public safety unions “thin”:

Prop. 487, which applies only to the Phoenix-run retirement system for non-public-safety employees, expressly excludes police and fire pensions. State law requires cities to contribute to the statewide public-safety pension system. The Arizona Constitution explicitly protects personnel already enrolled. Legal precedent clearly is on the side of public safety.

Even attorneys opposing Prop. 487 acknowledge that their arguments are thin. So why the fierce opposition?

Part of the explanation must be set at the feet of the Phoenix City Council, a majority of which opposes the proposition. The council created ballot language that disingenuously depicts the proposition taking action that is constitutionally forbidden.

The council majority and staff have made it clear which side they favor. It isn’t the side of the city’s taxpayers, who must bear the rapidly increasing expense of the city’s grossly underfunded pension plans.

But, largely, the anti-Prop. 487 campaign appears to be a statement by the city’s public-safety unions, which will adamantly oppose any effort to change any public-employee retirement system that promises to lessen the financial burden on the city’s taxpayers.

Even to the point of rising up against a ballot measure that will in no way affect their benefits.

But union leaders call the measure “poorly written” and maintain that the ambiguity of the measure doesn’t bode well for public safety workers. From a column in the Arizona Republic authored by the presidents of three Arizona public safety unions:

Prop. 487 will impact Phoenix police officers and firefighters. The only question is: Exactly how much?

Because of this measure’s contradictory language and because, according to the city’s analyses, Prop. 487 has the potential to make it illegal for the city to contribute to the public-safety retirement system, our groups oppose this ballot measure. Simply put: It is the wrong kind of reform.

Inevitably, Prop. 487 will end up in court for a years-long legal fight. Our opponents and The Arizona Republic editorial board have discounted that risk — and the looming massive legal bills.

However, given that police officers and firefighters don’t receive Social Security and judges are apt to make unpredictable rulings, we refuse to take such risks with the public safety of our community. We hope Phoenix residents will refuse, as well.

Read the entire column from the union leaders here.

You can read the Arizona Republic’s editorial board piece here.

How Would Phoenix Officials Handle The Up-Front Costs of Proposition 487?

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In two weeks, Phoenix voters will decide the fate of Proposition 487 – the ballot measure that would close off the city’s defined-benefit plan from new hires and shift them into a 401(k)-style plan.

The plan, if passed, would cost the city millions up front – but the tradeoff, proponents of the plan say, is a more sustainable pension system.

There are ways to offset the initial cost of the plan. One option is to eliminate deferred compensation for workers.

Would city officials support eliminating deferred compensation as a cost-saving measure?

The Arizona Republic asked them:

We asked: If Prop. 487 is approved, would you support removing deferred compensation without providing employees its value in another form? Please explain.

“It is important to provide employees fair compensation and to ensure the city remains a competitive employer. With that said, should Prop. 487 pass, the city will comply with the law and not provide deferred compensation. However, I would not want to presume what the end point or other forms of compensation could or could not be. We are required to negotiate in a fair and neutral manner per our Meet and Confer ordinance and to do so without a predetermined outcome. The city would negotiate in good faith with employee groups as required and practice good labor relations practices.”

Michael Nowakowski,District 7, southwest Phoenix and parts of downtown

“Yes. Prop. 487 lets current employees choose between their pensions or deferred compensation. They get to keep what they earned, but going forward, they can’t have both. Pensions are out of control — costs ballooned from $56 million in 2003 to $240 million in 2013. ‘Yes’ on Prop. 487 saves over $400 million by eliminating pension spiking and secondary retirement. This year, taxpayers saw a new water tax and cuts in police, after-school programs, seniors and libraries to fund the ballooning pension costs and $19 million in pension spiking. Prop. 487 treats employees and you fairly. Ask yourself, what do you get?”

Sal DiCiccio, District 6, Ahwatukee and east Phoenix

“I support 487. We must end pension spiking, and the prohibitively expensive status quo. I have voted against all final labor contracts as a councilman. By the time the initiative kicks in, the current contracts would have 18 months to run. I believe we must honor the voters’ decision and meet our contractual obligations (even though I voted against the contracts) by re-opening the contracts to mitigate loss of deferred compensation. In subsequent negotiations in 2016 and beyond, we should take a much more realistic approach to negotiations. The ‘we’ve always done it this way’ approach to negotiation must stop.”

Jim Waring, vice mayor (District 2), northeast Phoenix

“If deferred compensation is contained in contractual minutes — and rightfully owed to city employees — the city will be required to renegotiate its contract and provide payment in the form of wages. Ultimately, courts will decide the outcome at significant cost to taxpayers.”

Thelda Williams, District 1, northwest Phoenix

Fact Check: Would Phoenix’s Pension Proposal Really Cost $350 Million?

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In just two weeks, Phoenix residents will head to the ballot boxes to vote on Proposition 487, the controversial pension reform measure that would shift new hires into a 401(k)-type system.

Recently, a group opposing the law made a bold claim:

“Prop. 487 will cost Phoenix taxpayers more than $350 million over the next 20 years.”

But is it true?

The Arizona Republic did some fact checking. They found that the switch to a 401(k)-type system wouldn’t save the city any money initially. In fact, one report claims that the switch would indeed cost the city $350 million:

That [401(k)] provision would not save money, according to the city’s actuary. A report from the financial analysis firm Cheiron states that closing the pension system and replacing it with a 401(k)-style plan would cost the city an estimated $358 million over the first 20 years, assuming the city contributes 5 percent of employees’ pay to the defined-contribution plan.

An analyst for Cheiron and city officials said the move to a 401(k)-style plan itself would cost more initially because Phoenix must pay down its massive unfunded pension liability while funding a new retirement plan.

The city’s pension system for general employees, the City of Phoenix Employees’ Retirement System, is only 64.2 percent funded, meaning it doesn’t have the assets to pay about $1.09 billion in existing liabilities. In other words, the city only has about 64 cents on the dollar to cover all of its long-term payments for current and future retirees.

Phoenix must pay off that pension debt regardless of what voters decide. Prop. 487 wouldn’t decrease the existing unfunded liability, but it would stop the city’s liability from growing, opponents and supporters agree.

But there’s a twist: other aspects of Prop. 487 could offset the previously-mentioned costs. From the Arizona Republic:

Other changes outlined in Prop. 487 could offset that up-front cost of switching to a 401(k)-style plan. If fully implemented, the initiative would save the city a net of at least $325 million over the first 20 years, according to Cheiron’s report.

Two key provisions of Prop. 487 could save money in the first 20 years:

–Make permanent and expand reforms the city has made to combat the practice of “pension spiking,” generally seen as the artificial inflation of a city employee’s income to boost retirement benefits. It would exclude from the pension calculation any compensation beyond base pay and expand the number of years used to determine an employee’s final average salary, a key part of the benefit formula. Those changes could save an estimated $475 million over the first 20 years, Cheiron’s report states.

–Prohibit the city from contributing to more than one retirement account for each city worker, including current employees. Currently, the city contributes to a second retirement plan, known as deferred compensation, on top of most employees’ pensions. Cheiron projects eliminating deferred compensation would save an estimated $208 million.

Consultants for the city have said Prop. 487 could save additional money if those changes are applied to public-safety employees, who are in a separate, state-run pension system. Although the initiative contains intent language saying it doesn’t impact police officers and firefighters, supporters and opponents disagree whether it will be interpreted that way.

Interestingly, city officials have tended to agree that the reform measure would cost the city $350 million over the next 20 years. Officials are also worried about the litigation the proposal could invite if passed by voters.