Many state and local pension funds are still struggling from the financial crisis. Between 2007 and 2008, they recorded a loss of 27 percent. Pension assets have bounced back some — they stood at $2.664 trillion at the end of Q3 2011 — but are still approximately 17 percent below their 2007 high. Although many state legislatures and city councils have taken steps to shore up their pension funds, including the elimination of cost-of-living adjustments and requirements for higher contributions from employees and taxpayers as well as later retirement ages, there are still struggles ahead.
Chris Christie rode to national prominence when he publicly excoriated a New Jersey teacher and other citizens over differences in opinion in town hall meetings. In contrast to the plain vanilla politispeak of most public officials, his blunt, confrontational style of governing was seen as a breath of fresh air. Christie either has a naturally combative governing style or believes that choosing a new target will get the national spotlight back on him. Or maybe he just wants to create a legacy as New Jersey’s most powerful battering ram.
In her 2,500 word feature on the pension reform process in Rhode Island, New York Times reporter Mary Williams Walsh seems to have found more color than facts. The piece reads more like a campaign profile of Treasurer Gina Raimondo than an assessment of the gritty fight over public pensions in the nation’s sixth smallest state:
Hat tip to Ted Nesi of WPRI.com for pointing out this excellent union sponsored video that discusses the problems for the public pensions of Rhode Island. Although the details are specific to that state the structural problems apply to almost every state because public pensions across America are underfunded. Every state faces problems that are politically or financially difficult. Either taxpayers will be paying more to top pension plans or retirees will be receiving smaller pension payments. Pension reform is a complex topic and I hope we see more educational efforts like this video.
One of America’s oldest institutions is facing default. The United States Post Office could be forced to stop delivering mail at the end of September. The rhetoric around the issue is beginning to sound like the potential default of U.S. government debt obligations during the debt ceiling debate. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tells the fiscal tale:
Meredith Whitney’s prediction last November of hundreds of billions of dollars in municipal defaults over the next 12 months was totally wrong. But she was right on one thing: pension plans for state and local workers are unsustainable. I totaled up the data in a new paper by Robert Novy-Marx and Joshua Rauh (page 50) and got a nationwide funding shortfall of approximately $1.19 trillion. This data is from June 2009; pension fund data is only reported every three years, so it wouldn’t reflect the large equity-market increases over the last two years. But it’s still a whopping sum. On average U.S. public pension funds are only 61% funded.
It’s hot in Washington DC and Congress will return soon to figure out how to balance the federal budget. Part of the equation is likely to include raising more tax revenue. It’s easy to picture the thousands of lobbyists on K Street polishing their Gucci loafers and sharpening up their arguments to protect the interests they are hired to lobby for. There is no more epic battle in Washington than when tax benefits are being redrawn. The federal pie is getting smaller, and the battles will be fought in close combat.
New Jersey downgraded again
Yesterday Fitch joined Moody’s and S&P in downgrading the state of New Jersey to AA-, the fourth lowest investment-grade rating. This places New Jersey in the lowest 10% of states in terms credit quality and deflates the story of Governor Chris Christie’s repair of the state’s unfunded pension liabilities. From Bloomberg:
“The unions are buying power”
This is a great video of Stephanie Gomes discussing her experience as a member of the City Council in Vallejo, California, as they struggled through a municipal insolvency and bankruptcy. She talks about the power of the police and firefighter unions and their stranglehold on local politics. Gomes comes across as passionate citizen who was willing to confront some of the deep-seated problems in her community. She highlights the importance of local and national media attention on the “dirty laundry” of municipal finances like high salaries and generous pensions for union workers. Her experience is an important lesson for anyone interested in muniland.