Illinois suffered a blow when the State Supreme Court ruled that public employee retiree health benefits are enshrined in the state constitution and may not be adjusted via legislation. Illinois has lost an important tool for reducing $56 billion of unfunded retiree health care liabilities and $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. These unfunded retiree costs outstrip the state’s $33 billion of net tax supported debt.
The Kentucky Employees Retirement System (KERS-Non-Hazardous), the nation’s most poorly-funded state pension with 23 percent of the assets needed to cover liabilities, suffered a legal blow last week. As of last June, KERS had only $3.1 billion of assets to cover the $11.3 billion in retirement commitments that it had made and $8.26 billion of unfunded liabilities.
Pew Charitable Trusts has released an ominous report, “The Fiscal Health of State Pension Plans: Funding Gap Continues to Grow.” The report finds that in 2012, U.S. public pensions lost ground in their funding ratios and ended the year weaker than they started. What is not clear is why, in March 2014, Pew is reporting 2012 data. Because of large stock market gains in 2013, pension funding gaps are now actually shrinking, not growing. Reuters writes about the Pew report:
Video source: Pennsylvania Senate GOP
My colleague Felix Salmon recently dove into the subject of public pensions and the controversy about National Public Radio accepting funding from pension reform zealot John Arnold. It’s too bad that NPR and its affiliate WNYT were not more transparent about their connection to Arnold. There is a lack of understanding about the condition of public pension systems and how many are in dire financial condition. For example, Salmon wrote:
There is no one-size-fits-all condition for state pensions. The condition of state pensions varies from nearly 100 percent-funded plans in Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Dakota, Washington and New York to less than 55 percent in Kentucky, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Illinois.
The team at The Center for State and Local Government Excellence has set a new standard in how local pension burdens should be reported in financial documents like CAFRs. The center’s new approach for measuring a municipality’s pension burden is to aggregate the direct cost of locally-administered pension plans (both city and taxpayers’ share of costs) and contributions to state teacher and non-teacher plans on behalf of dependent school districts. The aggregated cost is compared to a community’s revenues to understand how much must support pensions.
Former SEC attorney Ted Siedle (currently formerly Putnam Investments’ compliance director), has issued a new investigative report that blasts Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo about her lack of transparency over the state’s pension investments. The report was commissioned by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
According to Moody’s latest report on local government pensions, Chicago’s adjusted pension and debt burden (relative to its tax base) is the largest in the nation. The city is now putting about 8 percent of its revenues toward its pension funds. But the pensions are so underfunded that if the city made the full annual pension payment it would amount to 28 percent of revenues. The city has seriously neglected funding its pension plans.
The pension doomsayers, who claim that pensions are direly underfunded and losing ground, may be surprised to hear that public pension assets grew to their highest-ever level for the last fiscal year (ending June 30). Strong equity market returns helped propel the national median investment return to 12.4 percent. The whiff of panic about public pensions should be subsiding, except for the ongoing hot spots like Puerto Rico, Illinois and Chicago. Overall, the winds have calmed.