The crisis that public pensions face over funding shortfalls is becoming increasingly important in the media. Add to that some concerns about the generous benefits that some public retirees receive. As state after state struggles with new controls on benefits and takes steps to address plan shortfalls, the issues become mired in more and more complexity.
Much as the Simpson-Bowles report aspired to be the foremost guide to reducing the federal deficit, the Volcker-Ravitch report on the state budget crisis that was released yesterday hopes to serve a similar purpose for state government spending. Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, and Richard Ravitch, who helped New York City work itself out of bankruptcy, led the State Budget Crisis Task Force, the group that produced this report. The task force also included two former U.S. Treasury Secretaries as members. The bottom line of the report is that there is less money to go around and that states should become better managers of the shrinking economic pie:
Some residents of Stockton, California are upset over the city’s decision to eliminate free healthcare benefits for public retirees. Michael Fitzgerald, a columnist for the Record, Stockton’s newspaper, wrote last week about the policy change:
The Government Accounting Standards Board voted Monday to toughen pension reporting standards, a slight accounting change that has significant repercussions for muniland. Reuters’ Lisa Lambert reports how data that was formerly buried in the footnotes of financial statements will have to be made more prominent:
A new white paper by Chris Tobe, a chartered financial analyst and a former trustee for the Kentucky Retirement System, asks: “Did the SEC and S&P let 14 states destroy their Pensions?” Tobe’s question shifts the blame for public pension shortfalls from generously compensated public workers to legislators, the credit-rating agencies and the SEC. His thesis is that some states’ legislators knowingly failed to make required annual payments to the pension fund and instead spent the money on current services such as teachers’ salaries and new roads. Tobe further alleges that credit-rating agencies and the SEC were asleep at the wheel about the problem and bear some of the blame.
Throughout the recovery, public-sector employment figures have been dismal. Even though recent data suggests that government job losses might have peaked, there is an ugly accounting change looming that could prove a permanent deterrent to a large rebound in government hiring.
Last week Gillian Tett of the Financial Times picked up Meredith Whitney’s municipal bond doomsday flag and started waving it for an international audience. Her article, entitled “Pension gap spells trouble for muni bonds,” broadly painted the entire municipal bond market as having unacknowledged, long-term issues. Her closing line seemed to be a call for investors to shift their concerns from European sovereign debt to the debt of muniland:
Illinois, the state in the weakest fiscal position, is planning two big bond deals in the first quarter of 2012. Next week they plan to raise $800 million in general obligation bonds to finance various transportation projects, followed by another $750 million later this winter in long-term bonds to fund construction projects.
It’s getting a little tiresome to hear all the adulation that’s being heaped on Gina Raimondo, the Rhode Island General Treasurer. She’s been praised in the Wall Street Journal, Time, and now CNBC as some sort of fiscal Joan of Arc who rescued the state’s public pension system from insolvency. I’ll give Raimondo credit for leading the charge to reduce benefits to Rhode Island public workers and increasing their retirement age, but she’s far from a pioneer in making tweaks to state pension plans – 17 other states have also made changes recently.