Judge in New Jersey Pension Trial Calls State Pension Contributions a “False Promise”

New Jersey State House

The judge presiding over the legal battle between New Jersey and its public workers said last week that the state’s 2011 pension reform law was a “false promise”.

The law required the state to contribute a set amount of money annually to the pension system. But Christie slashed those payments last year.

The judge, Mary Jacobson, wondered why New Jersey included in the reforms the “false promise” of guaranteed pension payments if the state knew it was unconstitutional.

From App.com:

Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson repeatedly made the point that the Legislature specifically made the pension contributions a contractual right in a law signed by Christie, though the administration’s lawyer said it’s not allowable because lawmakers decide each year what to fund.

“You’re saying that it was known at that time, should have been known at that time, that that was a false promise,” Jacobson said.

“It’s unprecedented because it’s unconstitutional if enforced,” said deputy attorney general Jean Reilly. “It’s not an accident that it’s not in there before. It’s not in there before because it’s not constitutionally permissible to do. … For all future legislatures, it’s merely an exhortation for payment.”

Lawyers for the Communications Workers of America union said Christie and lawmakers locked the obligation into law because pension payments are always the first thing to be cut if money gets tight. They said Christie was required to find the funding to pay for pensions, not skip the obligation.

“It was a political decision not to do that,” said attorney Kenneth Nowak. “Now, the governor may have some agenda as to how he feels about taxes. But he also has a constitutional obligation.”

Christie cut the state’s pension payments in 2014 and 2015 by around $2.5 billion.

 

Photo credit: “New Jersey State House” by Marion Touvel – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg#mediaviewer/File:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg

New Jersey Lawyers: 2011 Pension Reforms Invalid, State Doesn’t Have to Contribute to Pension System

New Jersey

New Jersey’s lawyers argued in court yesterday that Chris Christie was acting legally when he cut the state’s pension contribution last year by over $1 billion.

They argued that it didn’t matter that the state’s 2011 pension law – signed by Christie – mandated full pension payments from the state, because that law is unconstitutional.

More on the arguments from NJ.com:

A lawyer for the state argued today that Gov. Chris Christie cannot be forced to make full pension payments because the 2011 law committing him to fully fund the state system in exchange for union concessions was unconstitutional.

Interrupting the assistant attorney general, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson said the state’s case suggest that 2011 promise was “a hollow commitment.”

“You’re saying it should have been known at the time that it was a false promise,” Jacobson asked. “You’re saying that from the get-go, this statute, the requirement to make these contributions was void.”

[…]

Attorneys for the state said that the contract was unlawful from the start because the state cannot be obligated to any spending unless it’s approved by the voters — barriers imposed through the debt limitation clause and appropriations act.

Much of today’s arguments centered on whether the 2011 law conflicts with those restrictions.

The contract would interfere with the Legislature’s discretion over how the state spends its money, lawyers for the state said, and the state can’t be obligated to debt unless it’s approved by the voters.

Jacobson was skeptical of the state’s arguments that the appropriations act and debt limitations clause would trump the contracts clause, which appears in both the state and federal constitutions.

But, the state countered, the appropriation and debt limitation measures apply to the formation of contracts, while the contract clause applies to the enforcement of contracts.

In 2014, Christie cut a total of $2.4 billion in state payments to the pension system and used the money to cover revenue shortfalls elsewhere in the budget.

 

“New Jersey State House” by Marion Touvel – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg#mediaviewer/File:New_Jersey_State_House.jpg

Bruce Rauner Named Most Important Player in U.S. Pensions

Bruce Rauner

Institutional Investor magazine has released its list of the 40 most influential people in U.S. pensions. Topping the list is the man who now governs a state with one of the worst pension problems in the country: Bruce Rauner.

From Institutional Investor:

Republican Bruce Rauner, the victor over Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn in the recent Illinois gubernatorial race, may regret he ever wished to win elective office. Rauner, onetime chairman of Chicago private equity firm GTCR, has had no real profile on retirement policy but finds himself staring at what may be the most serious pension mess among the states.

As of June 30, 2014, Illinois’s pension debt had reached $111 billion; Moody’s Investors Service reported in September that the state’s three-year average pension liability over revenue was 258 percent, five times the median percentage for all 50 states.

In 2013, Quinn persuaded the legislature to pass a bill raising the retirement age and cutting cost-of-living increases for beneficiaries. But the Illinois constitution holds that pensions cannot be “diminished,” and a coalition of public employee unions sued. And on November 21, Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz found the law unconstitutional, declaring, “Protection against the diminishment or impairment of pension benefits is absolute and without exception.”

Depending on various appeals, Rauner, 57, could try to implement his campaign agenda for pensions, which includes capping the current program and shifting members to a defined contribution plan — though he has begun to talk of just shifting new employees to avoid legal problems. Rauner has said he’d seek to keep benefits from rising faster than inflation and would eliminate employees’ ability to receive large pay hikes before retirement to beef up their pensions.

The odds of pushing these reforms through a Democratic-controlled state senate remain long, made worse by allegations that Rauner (and separately, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel [No. 4]) accepted contributions from executives affiliated with firms that manage Illinois pension plans. Rauner has not publicly responded to the allegations.

The ranking clearly reflects not what Rauner has already done, but the power he will have in the coming years. If the Illinois Supreme Court strikes down the state’s pension reform law, lawmakers will have to start from scratch – and Rauner will be at the helm.

 

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

For Bond Buyers, Illinois is “Problem State” Until Pension Limbo Resolved

Illinois map and flagIllinois has been in a state of pension limbo since July, when a state Supreme Court ruling on healthcare premiums hinted that the state’s pension reform law would be struck down by the courts.

Now, bond buyers are watching closely how the Supreme Court rules on the state’s pension reform law – but until then, investors are marred in “uncertainty” and are calling Illinois a “problem state”.

From The Street:

Municipal debt investors are watching the appeals process that will decide whether or not the State of Illinois’ pension reform bill ends up in the wastebasket, which would send the Land of Lincoln back to square one in its attempts to battle its pension funding crisis.

“There’s so much uncertainty there,” Daniel Solender, the lead portfolio manager for municipal bonds at investment manager Lord Abbett & Co., said by phone Wednesday. “It’s hard to know what the right valuation is [for the state’s bonds].”

So far, investors are waiting and watching. Solender noted that there hasn’t been much trading in Illinois’ bonds in response to a Nov. 21 Circuit Court decision that said the reform bill was unconstitutional. If the Illinois Supreme Court upholds that decision, Solender expects a negative effect on the state’s bond values.

“For investors to get comfortable, there has to be some idea of a plan [for pension reform], and there doesn’t seem to be one [now],” he said.

Still, he is confident that Illinois has time to work out its pension issues one way or another.

Solender and other sources are looking optimistically to Governor-elect Bruce Rauner, a Republican, to address the issue. Rauner will replace Pat Quinn, a Democrat, on Jan. 12.

Illinois’ unfunded pension liability has ballooned to $111.2 billion, according to a November report by the Illinois Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The Teachers’ Retirement System accounts for about half of that at $61.6 billion, the report said.

A June 24 report by Standard & Poor’s revealed that Illinois has, by far, the lowest level of pension funding in the country at 40.4% funded, followed by Connecticut (49.1%).

As part of a Dec. 1 panel in New York City that discussed municipal debt restructuring, William A. Brandt Jr., president and CEO of Development Specialists Inc., said that Illinois holds 43% of the public pensions in the U.S. According to Brandt, who is also the chair of the Illinois Finance Authority, those amount to some 652 public pensions.

“Illinois is your problem state,” he warned.

Moody’s gives Illinois’ credit an A3 rating – the lowest of any state.

Illinois Supreme Court Expedites Pension Reform Appeal

Illinois flagThe Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday complied with a request by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to fast track the hearing over the state’s pension reform law, which a lower court found unconstitutional.

From Reuters:

The court ordered public labor unions and retiree groups challenging the law and the state to file their briefs in January and February with oral arguments to be scheduled in March. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan had asked the court last week to speed up the appeal process.

The state asked for oral arguments as early as Jan. 22 and no later than March 10 to enable Illinois’ upcoming budget to incorporate about $1 billion in cost-savings under the law, or adequate spending cuts or tax increases to offset those savings.

The pension reform law was supposed to go into effect on June 1 but was put on hold by Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Belz in May pending his Nov. 21 ruling in five consolidated lawsuits. The state’s new fiscal year begins July 1 and the legislature usually passes a budget by May 31.

The law’s opponents asked the supreme court on Tuesday not to speed up the case.

The law raises retirement ages and suspends COLAs for some workers, and makes state contributions to the pension system enforceable by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Fast-Tracking of Illinois Pension Case Could Be Blocked

Illinois flag

Last week, Illinois asked the state Supreme Court to expedite the hearing over the state’s pension reform law.

But on Sunday, attorneys representing the state workers and retirees said they could block the attempt to fast track the case. Such a move could drastically change the timeline for the lawsuit’s hearing.

From the Southern Illinoisan:

In a move that could play a significant role in how Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner crafts his first budget this spring, the lawyers say Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s bid to put the case on a fast track is unwarranted.

“We do not believe there is any need to impose an emergency schedule,” said attorney John Fitzgerald, who is among a team of lawyers representing retirees. “We see no need to depart from the rules.”

On Thursday, Madigan asked the high court to move quickly in hearing the case because of the financial ramifications the pension changes will have on the state budget.

[…]

Madigan suggested the court schedule oral arguments for as early as Jan. 22 or no later than mid-March.

Attorneys for the retirees, who say the expedited schedule is unnecessary, have until Tuesday to file their objections to the motion.

Without the expedited schedule, the deadline for filing the first significant set of records in the case wouldn’t occur until the final week of January.

After that, the typical court schedule calls for both sides in the lawsuit to trade paperwork for nearly three months. Once that is completed, the high court would then schedule oral arguments.

Under that scenario, the court could hear the case as early as May. If they miss the May docket, the next time the judges are scheduled to hear oral arguments is September.

Following the argument phase, the court could take months to issue a ruling. In a similar case regarding health insurance costs, the court took nearly 10 months to overturn the state’s attempt to force retirees to pay a portion of their pensions toward that expense.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz ruled last month that the law was unconstitutional.

South Carolina Workers Lose Appeal of Provision of Pension Reform Law

South Carolina flag

Public workers in South Carolina have lost their appeal of a provision of the state’s 2005 pension reform law, a federal appeals court said Friday.

The employees were challenging a provision of the law that dealt with the pension contributions of workers who retire but later return to work for the state.

An explanation of the provision that was being challenged and what it means for workers, from Reuters:

A provision of the revised law requires retirees who later return to work to pay into the retirement system, making the same contributions as other employees but without accruing extra service credit for pension benefits, according to court documents.

Before the [pension] overhaul went into effect, retired public employees could return to work and earn up to $50,000 without giving up the right to receive retirement benefits and without having to make more contributions to the pension funds.

More on the lawsuit from Reuters:

Public employees filed the class action case in 2010, arguing that an element of the reform was unconstitutional because it essentially took their property.

Losing the case could have cost South Carolina at least $121 million, the amount of new contributions that working retirees had made under the revised law through June 2012, according to state financial filings last month.

[…]

In making its decision about sovereign immunity, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said it considered that any money to pay a judgment against the retirement system would have to come out of the state treasury.

How Credit Rating Agencies Reacted to Illinois Pension Ruling

Illinois map and flag

None of the three major rating agencies changed their outlook on Illinois’ credit in the wake of a lower court ruling that deemed the state’s pension reform law unconstitutional.

But rating agencies are certainly keeping a close watch on the state as the reform law moves up to the Supreme Court. And all three agencies had something to say after the ruling.

Moody’s had the harshest take, calling the ruling “credit negative” that leaves the door open for a rating downgrade. Summarized by Governing:

[Moody’s] issued an analysis on Nov. 24 that said the “state’s negative outlook indicates the possibility that factors such as further growth in the state’s pension liabilities will drive the rating lower still.” The state is appealing the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court but Moody’s was wary of its chances and pointed out that the top court this summer indicated in a separate case on retiree health benefits that would adhere strictly to the pension protection clause.

A top Moody’s official commented further in a WUIS report:

“The average state from our perspective or the expected rating for a state is AA1, which is our second highest rating. And so Illinois is A3, so that’s five rating notches below that,” said Ted Hampton, a Vice President at Moody’s Investor Service. “Which is to say, it’s still an investment-grade rating. It’s still a strong rating in the context of every kind of security that we rate. But it’s far below all of the other states.”

Hampton says Moody’s saw Illinois’ passage of the pension overhaul as beneficial, but not enough to move the credit ratings needle – because a court challenge was suspected. The recent court ruling likewise wasn’t not enough to prompt a change, though Moody’s called the decision “credit negative” in a notice sent out Tues., Nov. 24.

“We do get a lot of inquiries about states, particularly Illinois where there are problems that are in the news, and where the situation is in flux. And publishing these comments helps us get our opinion out to those investors, or to the general public,” Hampton said.

Fitch and S&P said the pension ruling didn’t move the needle much as far as the state’s credit rating. From Governing:

Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s were far more forgiving. Both said they had already factored in the likelihood of court challenge into their current ratings for Illinois. “More importantly, from a credit perspective,” S&P added, savings from the pension reform are not included in the fiscal 2015 budget.”

Interestingly, Fitch’s main concern wasn’t the pension ruling. Instead, the agency said the real concern was the expiration of several tax increases. From Governing:

Fitch did note another trouble spot for Illinois’ credit lurking just ahead: the scheduled expiration of temporary tax increases in 2015. “The state passed a placeholder budget for the current fiscal year with a stated intent to revisit the issue after the November elections,” Fitch said. “Taking steps to address the long-standing structural mismatch between revenues and spending would put the state on more solid financial footing, while failure to take action would be a return to past practices and leave the state poorly positioned to confront future downturns.”

Reeder: Pension Ruling Puts Illinois in a Bind

Illinois capitol

Last month, a circuit court struck down Illinois’ pension reform law, deeming it unconstitutional.

Scott Reeder, a journalist who has covered politics across the country for 25 years, wrote about what could happen if the Supreme Court upholds the circuit court’s ruling in his column in the Journal Standard:

Belz’s ruling sets the stage for the crisis to deepen.

While government worker unions were touting the ruling as a victory, it’s actually sowing despair for many current employees and sets the stage for generational warfare.

If the high court upholds this ruling, tax dollars that would be go to support schools, prisons and other state services will be diverted to fund pensions.

Look for teachers, prison guards and other state workers to receive pink slips to free up money for increased pension payments.

Who else but government workers routinely retire in their 50s, have guaranteed cost of living adjustments and pensions guaranteed to grow until the day they die?

Not most of us in the private sector, that’s for sure.

Things won’t be pretty during the 2015 legislative session, which begins in January.

Don’t be surprised if deep cuts are made in state spending, less money flows to schools and more government workers head toward the unemployment line.

And things could get worse when summer comes. That’s when the labor contract with the largest state workers’ union expires.

One should expect Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner to demand wage concessions.

It’s simple math.

With more money going to pensions, less will be available for wages and other benefits.

Of course, the Illinois Supreme Court could rule that the crisis is so extreme that the state’s emergency powers allow it to reshape pensions on their own.

Just how severe is the crisis?

If all of state government were to shut down and its entire operating budget were diverted to fund pensions, Illinois pensions would still be in the hole three years from now.

Now, that’s a crisis.

Read the entire piece here.

Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar Weighs In On State’s Pension Problems; Calls Pension Reform Law A “Huge Mistake”

Illinois flagJim Edgar, former Illinois governor from 1991 to 1999, sat down with Reboot Illinois this week to discuss the state’s pension crisis and the court ruling that deemed Illinois’ pension reform law unconstitutional.

Edgar talked about the ruling and placed fault on lawmakers for not drafting a bill that would pass the scrutiny of the courts. From Reboot Illinois:

I thought they made a huge mistake passing a clearly unconstitutional proposal. It just delayed trying to figure out something that we can do for three years and we went through a lot of anguish we didn’t need to go through that scared a lot of people. I’m not a lawyer, but it’s pretty plain if you read the constitution, if you read the debates of the convention, they put that language in exactly to keep the Legislature from doing what they did two years ago. I expect courts will throw it out and we’re going to have to start over.

Then, I don’t think there’s any silver bullet. It’s obvious you can’t say we’re going to solve this on the backs of the retirees or the employees. I don’t think it’s going to get done overnight. Whatever plan gets put in place will be like the plan we put in place back in the mid ‘90s and, unfortunately, they got away from it.

He talked about the funding ratio Illinois should be shooting for:

I don’t think also you have to have 100 percent funding in the pension plan. Everybody’s not going to retire at the same time. I think you can keep probably 75, 80 percent is sufficient, but I think what you’ve got to demonstrate to a lot of folks out there who rate the state’s credit and a lot of those things is that the plan will work over a period of time and that they are committed and are going to stick with it. We thought when we put in the provision you had to pay into the pension plan first thing before you did anything else that they would keep paying in. I never thought they would have the nerve to change that, but under (former Gov. Rod) Blagojevich they did and so you’re going to have to find some safeguards to put into the plan, but I think it’s going to take 20, 30 years to get to the level we want to get to, but if we start working toward it and don’t go on any spending spree with the pension plan, I think we can do that.

Edgar also touched on Bruce Rauner’s stated plan of moving new hires into a 401(k)-style plan:

That’s something they’re going to have to work out with the Legislature and if they do that, they have enough money to take care of the commitments. The constitution says the pension benefits already granted have to be honored. You can’t cut those. You’re going to have to balance those two things off.

[….]

unfortunately we won’t have that much growth in the number of new people coming in and if they’re not paying into the system, it’s like Social Security. Same thing with state workers. You had a growth in state workers that occurred from about ’68 and a lot of those people are now retiring, so I doubt if we’re going to keep seeing the growth in state government, so you’ve got to be careful on that.

That’s all his suggestion. I don’t think he’s said it’s this way or no way. I think he knows he’s going to have to negotiate it.

Read the entire interview here.