Documents: Illinois Gov. Rauner’s Budget Will Recommend Pension Cuts

Bruce Rauner

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner will give his budget address on Wednesday afternoon. He’ll announce a number of cost-cutting proposals, and pensions are sure to be featured.

What specifically does Rauner have in mind for the state pension system?

Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business got a hold of budget documents that hint at Rauner’s plans.

From Crain’s:

On pensions, Rauner is proposing to go substantially farther than the reforms passed a year ago by the General Assembly, reforms that now are being challenged before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Specifically, according to budget documents shared with me, Rauner intends to save $2.2 billion next year, cutting the state’s unfunded pension liability by $25 billion. He’d do that by freezing all benefits as of July 1, moving workers to a new plan in which cost-of-living hikes would be cut from the current 3 percent a year to the lesser of 3 percent or half of inflation, non-compounding; the normal retirement age would be 67, and overtime would not be counted in pension benefits.

These changes would apply to benefits earned after July 1. Benefits earned prior to that date would be paid at the previous rate. The Rauner document says that makes it constitutional as “earned benefits” are not cut. Expect a court challenge to that.

All of these changes would apply only to plans covering teachers, university employees and other state workers—not public safety employees.

Read an overview of the rest of Rauner’s probable budget proposals here.

 

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

New Maryland Gov. Turns Focus to State Pensions

Maryland

Gov.-elect Larry Hogan is busy constructing a budget to give to state lawmakers this week. But next on Hogan’s to-do list is a thorough examination of the state’s underfunded pension system – and how it will affect the budget his team has just put together.

From the Baltimore Sun:

The Maryland State Retirement and Pension System had only about 69 percent of the assets needed to pay for future and current retirees’ pensions in the last fiscal year — well below the at least 80 percent target that many experts consider healthy.

Robert Neall, Hogan’s fiscal adviser, called the nearly $20 billion unfunded liability in the state retirement system “an area of concern.” Hogan’s team has been busy putting together a budget to present to the Maryland General Assembly on Jan. 23, but Neall said the administration will soon begin examining the health of the pension system.

“That’s going to require higher pension contributions [from the state] probably for two decades, that’s why it’s a concern,” Neall said. “They are just facts that we have to contend with as we put together a fiscal ’15 closure and a fiscal ’16 budget to present to the General Assembly.

[…]

Michael Golden, a spokesman for the state pension system, said reforms made to the pension system in 2011, including requiring most employees to contribute 7 percent of their salaries into the fund instead of 5 percent, put it “on the road to stability.”

“We feel like were on track to get to the 80 percent funded ratio by 2024; we think that’s a good track to be riding on,” Golden said. “We have no plans at this moment to do anything differently.”

Robert Burd, the retirement system’s acting chief investment officer, said the board chose to reduce the percentage of money invested in stocks — about 39 percent was invested in stocks in 2014, less than most other states — after the recession because of concern about risk. While Maryland has not enjoyed as much of a benefit from the rebound in the stock market, Burd said, the change leaves the fund less exposed to future downturns.

“That’s why we don’t look as good as some of our peers do when it comes to rankings,” Burd said.

Maryland’s pension system manages $45.4 billion in assets for 143,000 retirees and is 69 percent funded.

Top Kentucky Lawmaker Close to Filing Bill For Additional Teacher Pension Funding

Kentucky flag

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo says he is planning on filing a bill by the end of the week that would give additional funding to the state’s Teacher Retirement System.

The funding would come through bond sales and could lead to an infusion of nearly $1 billion into the teachers’ system.

Not all lawmakers are on board with the idea of issuing bonds to pay down pension debt. But Stumbo says the time is now.

From the Courier-Journal:

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said authorizing bonds would allow the system to capitalize on historically low borrowing rates and refinance its pension debt. He compared it to refinancing a home mortgage.

“I don’t generally favor bonding these pension obligations, but since the market is so favorable, it would be irresponsible for us not to at least consider what they proposed,” he said.

Stumbo said Thursday that the bill remains under review by pension officials but that he expects to file legislation within the next day.

KTRS has proposed two options for lawmakers to consider in the 2015 legislative session.

One involves a $1.9 billion bond issue to help fully fund teacher pensions for the next four years and eventually decrease annual pension costs by about $500 million by fiscal year 2026.

A second option for $3.3 billion in bonds could fully fund the system for eight years and save around $445 million annually by 2026.

The Kentucky Teacher Retirement System has $14 billion in unfunded liabilities.

Cincinnati Strikes Pension Deal; City to Pay More, Retiree Benefits Reduced

After nearly a year of negotiations, Cincinnati and its public workers have reached an agreement that aims to increase the sustainability of the city’s pension system.

The city will contribute significantly more money to the pension system. In exchange, retirees will not see a cost-of-living adjustment for the next three years and will see smaller COLAs in the years after.

The terms of the agreement, from the Cincinnati Enquirer:

Under the agreement, the city will:

* Contribute $38 million to the pension system next year. The city will do that over the next seven years by borrowing against future revenue.

* Contribute $200 million in 2016 from the financially stable retiree heath care trust fund to the pension system.

* Make a larger contribution to the pension starting in July 2016 – 16.25 percent of the annual operating budget compared to 14 percent – and continuing for 30 years.

Employees will:

* Take a three-year cost of living adjustment holiday.

* After that, the cost of living adjustment for both current retirees and active employees will go to 3 percent simple interest. Most current retirees receive an increase that is “compounded,” meaning the previous year’s increase is included in the following year’s calculation. Current employees already have a 3 percent simple COLA in place when they retire. The total cost of the cut was unclear Tuesday night, but can be projected. It is a significant amount.

More background and reaction from the city and unions, from the Cincinnati Enquirer:

Nobody walked away happy – not city officials, not current workers and not retirees – but everyone agreed it was a fair compromise.

The agreement ensures pension benefits will be sustained for current and future retirees and shores up the city’s financial position for years to come.

“I want to thank all of the parties for coming to the table and hammering out a compromise,” Cranley said. “It’s been a rough road and no party got everything they wanted. This settlement requires some sacrifice on all sides, but it will help strengthen the city’s financial health and ensures the pension system will still be there for everyone in it.”

The deal averts cuts to basic services for all Cincinnati residents.

Cranley, flanked by city union leaders and other top city officials, announced the agreement on the steps of the University Club at 10:45 p.m. Tuesday. All parties had been inside, negotiating since 1 p.m.

“We’re elated,” said Pete McClendon, the former president of AFSCME who is now the president of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO (of which AFSCME is a part). “The agreement stabilizes benefits … in a way that is fiscally responsible. We look forward to a workforce that can retire with dignity.”

The city’s unfunded pension liabilities hover near $862 million.

Improving CalSTRS Funding Comes at Cost for School Districts

The CalSTRS Building
The CalSTRS Building

California lawmakers acted earlier this year to improve the funding status of CalSTRS.

That means higher payments from school districts – and recent budget forecasts are forcing schools to examine how these payments will strain their budgets.

From the San Diego Union Tribune:

A state-mandated sched-ule for replenishing California’s cash-strapped teachers’ retirement fund means school districts will see their pension contributions triple by 2021 and remain high for decades, according to budget forecasts released this month by several local districts.

Administrators say they’re at a loss for how they’ll come up with the cash, which for some districts could be tens of millions per year. The forecasts come just six months after a legislative deal was struck by Sacramento lawmakers to recover billions of dollars for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or CalSTRS.

[…]

Administrators said that in the coming fiscal year, they may be faced with tough decisions to cut instructional programs, cut professional development or delay technology infrastructure improvements at the expense of paying their share of unfunded pension liabilities — totaling $74 billion statewide.

Officials in districts throughout California are talking about forming a coalition to explore ways to fix the teacher retirement system without cutting into their own school programs.

As the pension contributions grow, “the things you want and need for educational purposes will take a second seat to funding this retirement system, or paying for utility bills,” said Gary Hamels, assistant superintendent in charge of business services with San Marcos Unified School District.

“It’s going to hit the fan because you’ll have to make a decision — I have to pay this so you can’t buy that,” Hamels said. “We’ll have a situation where there’s demand for some academic improvement but this is where the money is going first.”

The business model to get CalSTRS on solid footing is based on economic assumptions that will force each of the area school districts to cough up tens of millions of additional dollars for decades to come, said Lora Duzyk, assistant superintendent in charge of business services for San Diego County’s Office of Education. Teachers also will see their CalSTRS contributions rise, though not as fast as school districts.

“I think you will hear moaning and gnashing of teeth from all kinds of people,” Duzyk said. “The money to pay for this are new costs that come right off the top of anything you get (from the state).”

Details on the repayment schedule are outlined in a school funding law passed in June by California’s legislature, and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who marched into office in 2011 vowing to pull the state out of its budget crisis.

CalSTRS was 66.9 percent funded as of June 30, 2013.

 

Photo by Stephen Curtin

Public Utility Company: We Can’t Afford Jacksonville’s Pension Reform Deal

palm tree

A key part of Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown’s pension reform proposal was forcing the city to pay an addition $40 million every year for 10 years into the city’s Police and Fire Pension Fund.

But the question was always: where does the city get that money?

The solution, pushed for months by Brown, was to have JEA, a public utility company, make the payments.

But after further analysis, JEA says it simply can’t foot the bill.

From the Florida Times-Union:

In a closely-watched report completed with help from outside attorneys and financial consultants, JEA says it can’t afford Mayor Alvin Brown’s proposal to use the utility’s financial muscle to help pay off the city’s $1.65 billion Police and Fire Pension Fund debt, according to a draft copy of the document.

The report’s conclusion is a body blow to Brown’s efforts to pass his signature pension-bill, and it echoes skepticism some JEA officials have aired for months about the idea — which would have JEA pay an additional $40 million a year for 10 years on top of the more than $100 million it already contributes annually to the city’s general fund.

“JEA recognizes the challenges for our community resulting from very significant unfunded pension liabilities for the Police and Fire Pension Fund and General Employee Pension Plan, which includes JEA employees,” the report says. “However, at this time, we are unable to increase our contribution to the City of Jacksonville without increasing rates, and even with a rate increase an increase in contribution to the city threatens our bond ratings.”

JEA says that it has other challenges it needs to address, and shifting more money towards the pension system would hurt its credit. From the FTU:

The report details many of the financial challenges facing JEA: industry-wide declines in electric and water sales, impending federal regulations that could come with massive costs and billions of dollars of its own in existing debt.

Several City Council members quickly dismissed Brown’s idea earlier this year, saying it’s clear JEA has too much on its plate.

The nation’s major credit-rating agencies have cautioned JEA that increasing its city contribution — which historically has been higher than the industry average — to address Jacksonville’s pension crisis could hurt its credit.

Officials in surrounding Northeast Florida counties that also use services from the city-owned utility have said they’re wary about the plan if it means higher rates for customers.

JEA already contributes about $100 million to the city’s pension system.

University of California Considers Raising Tuition As Pension Liabilities Mount

Flag of California

The University of California is considering a plan that would raise tuition by 5 percent each of the next five years.

If the plan is approved, the extra revenue will go, in part, towards paying down billions in unfunded liabilities associated with the University’s pension plan.

From the Sacramento Bee:

When the University of California Board of Regents on Wednesday debates a plan to raise tuition by up to 5 percent annually over each of the next five years, they will focus on how the revenue could benefit the university’s academic mission: expanded course offerings, more support services, 5,000 more slots for California students.

But UC officials say the system also needs the money to help rescue its pension fund – neglected for two decades and facing $7.2 billion in unfunded liabilities – and to cover the growing cost of retiree health benefits.

“They’re going to have to ramp up contributions considerably over the next few years in order to maintain the financial health of the system,” said Adam Tatum, a retirement systems specialist at California Common Sense, a nonpartisan policy research organization. “What is certain is that the UC needs more money to pay off these unfunded liabilities – if not now, then in the future. That’s inevitable.”

This year, UC will pay about $1.3 billion to the pension fund, about 5 percent of its overall operating budget.

The University has asked the state to cover a portion of the school’s payments into the system. But California hasn’t taken the school up on their offer. From the Bee:

UC officials want the state’s general fund to pick up nearly a third of the payment, which would cover the university’s portion of pension contributions for faculty and other employees who are paid from state funds.

“Frankly, if the state were to pay that, we would not be proposing a tuition increase,” said Nathan Brostrom, UC’s chief financial officer. “That is money that could go to other resources.”

UC notes that the state covers the costs of employer pension contributions to CalPERS for other state agencies, including California State University. “This is money we’re paying out of our own resources that the state is providing to every other state agency,” Brostrom said. “It’s just a matter of equity. Why do they not take any action to help us with it?”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration maintains that UC, with a good deal of governing autonomy and its own retirement system, should cover the costs. H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said the state’s taxpayers aren’t obligated to help UC cover its liabilities. He said the state has increased UC’s general fund allocation so the university could determine its own fiscal priorities.

“They have an independent system,” Palmer said. “We don’t have any input on the structure of the system. We don’t have any input on the level of benefits.”

The UC Retirement Plan is 76 percent funded.

New Jersey Lawmaker Proposes Tweak in Pension Funding Formula To Reduce Burden

New Jersey State House

New Jersey Senator Stephen Sweeney (D) has proposed a plan to tweak the state’s pension funding formula, which would lower the state’s annual contributions to the pension system.

More details from NJ Spotlight:

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) wants to overhaul the state’s pension funding formula to make annual state pension contributions lower and more “manageable” over the next decade while preserving benefits for retirees.

“Governor (Chris) Christie says the state can’t afford to get to 100 percent funding of the public employee pension system, and he used that argument to justify cutting pension contributions by $2.4 billion and to call for public employees to pay more,” Sweeney said in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “But he’s using the 100 percent funding target to inflate the size of the problem and make it look worse than it is for his own political purposes.”

“In the private sector, 85 percent funding is considered the ‘gold standard’ under ERISA,” Sweeney said, referring to the 1974 federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act that sets the guidelines for private pension systems. “That’s manageable. We can get to 85 percent funding, and at that level, we can restore the COLAs (cost-of-living adjustments) for retirees too.”

Sweeney’s plan to change the pension funding formula would save billions of dollars in pension payments in state budgets over the next decade, while still cutting the state’s unfunded pension liability for teachers and state government workers and retirees sufficiently to guarantee the solvency of the pension system. That unfunded liability is now expected to top $60 billion by FY18, up from $54 billion before Christie’s pension cuts.

But John Bury, an actuary that blogs at Bury Pensions, says the plan achieves savings through “manipulating numbers” and doesn’t address any of the real issues facing the state’s pension system. From Bury Pensions:

Most private sector funds (excluding multiemployer plans which are a mess but including ‘one-participant’ DB plans which are thriving) ARE funded at 100 percent and, if not, have to be funded at 100% within seven years under PPA funding rules and the actuarial assumptions that define 100% are legislated (though MAP-21 and HAFTA have watered those down).  Apply those private sector PPA factors to public plans and New Jersey’s 54% funded ratio drops to 30%.

A pension system with 30 percent of the funding it needs to cover all accrued pension obligations is clearly regarded as dead to anyone in the business of understanding, and not manipulating, numbers.

Omaha Hit With Credit Downgrade As Pension Liabilities Increase

Omaha skyline

Moody’s downgraded Omaha’s credit rating from Aa1 to Aa2 on Thursday, citing “pension costs” as a major driver of the downgrade.

Moody’s did give the city a “stable” outlook, but admitted that pension costs are “not expected to moderate in the near future.”

Factors that played a part in the downgrade, according to the Moody’s report:

CHALLENGES

– Large and growing unfunded pension liabilities, persistent underfunding of ARC

– High fixed operating costs arising from pensions, debt service, and OPEB

– Protracted union negotiations likely to require retroactive expenses

Factors that could drive the city’s rating up, or further down, from the report:

WHAT COULD CHANGE THE RATING- UP

-Significant progress to reduce the city’s long-term pension and OPEB liabilities

-Reduction in fixed cost burden to the city’s budget

WHAT COULD CHANGE THE RATING – DOWN

-Failure to achieve significant progress towards reducing long term liabilities

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert released a statement addressing the downgrade. From WOWT News:

“Omaha’s bond rating is still better than 80% of all US cities,” reads a news release from the Mayor’s Office.

[…]

“This bond rating shows we still have a lot of work to do in reforming our public employee pensions,” says Mayor Jean Stothert. “Our unions must realize the severe consequences of delays, inaction and failure to accept reasonable contract offers.”

 

Photo credit: “Omaha skyline humid day” by Mawhamba. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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

Entering Arizona sign

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.