No public pension crisis in Minnesota

  • Updated: April 9, 2011 - 9:50 PM

Switch to defined-contribution system would cost more.

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"This is not Wisconsin!" DFL Gov. Mark Dayton declared a few weeks ago, voicing disapproval of the assault on public-employee union collective bargaining rights launched by his Wisconsin counterpart, GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

When it comes to public-employee pension benefits, we'd add that Minnesota is also not Illinois, New Jersey, California or a number of other badly overextended states.

 In too much of the country, state and local pension obligations greatly exceed the assets of public-employee retirement funds. In some of those states, Wisconsin among them, public workers contribute little from their own paychecks.

Minnesota's picture is more positive. For decades, employees and their government employers have split pension costs equally, or nearly so.

Their contributions have been sufficient enough through the years that, when combined with returns from well-managed investments, they have kept unfunded liabilities comparatively small.

Still, the stock market downturn of 2008-09 changed Minnesota's pension funding ratios for the worse. The state's three funds historically have looked to investment earnings for two-thirds of their revenues. By 2009, their unfunded liabilities had swelled to more than $20 billion.

That led to two developments, one laudable, one less so:

•The 2010 Legislature and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty agreed to a number of benefit cuts and contribution increases that will be phased in over the next four years. Some employee groups agreed to some of the largest pension contributions in the country. Minnesota was one of only a handful of similarly afflicted states to agree to cuts in benefits for current retirees.

Those moves are paying off nicely in stabilizing the pension funds. Already, combined with the improving stock market, they have shaved unfunded liabilities by more than a third.

•Well-meaning policy wonks and union-bashing politicians seized on the $20 billion figure and argued that Minnesota should stop providing defined-benefit pensions to public employees. Some conservative think tanks and academicians disputed the $20 billion figure, saying government accounting was hiding a much larger figure -- a claim that remains hotly contested.

The critics urged government to go the way of many private employers by providing future and/or younger workers with a "defined contribution" to a worker-owned 401(k) retirement savings plan, ending the promise of a set pension check.

That move would shift the risk associated with future market downturns from pension funds and the taxpayers to workers themselves.

On April 1, a draft report dashed cold fiscal water on that idea. A study commissioned by the 2010 Legislature found that a transition to defined-contribution pensions for new hires would cost taxpayers an additional $3.5 billion over the next 15 years.

After a transition period of 15 to 20 years, defined contribution pensions "can provide the opportunity to lower government costs" by reducing those contributions, the study acknowledged. But for workers, defined-benefit plans are superior, the study said.

They "can provide the same level of income at roughly half the costs" of a defined-contribution plan, because defined-benefit plans pool longevity risks and produce superior investment returns than the typical 401(k).

Inadequate pension funding could indeed lead to higher future costs for taxpayers, but not in the way the critics of public-employee pensions think, notes Minnesota State Retirement System Executive Director David Bergstrom.

A bigger problem looms in the private sector. About half of U.S. private employers offer no pension or 401(k) plan. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that median U.S. households age 60-62 with 401(k) accounts have less than 25 percent of the funds needed to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

That raises the specter of the return of widespread poverty among the elderly, something the nation has not seen for a half-century, when life expectancies were shorter. A surge in the share of poor elderly would increase the demand for public safety-net programs, while hastening the shrinkage of the American middle class and the American economy.

Public pensions bear continuing scrutiny. But the clamor to shrink their costs shouldn't distract policymakers from the nation's larger retirement issues.

  • THREE FUNDS

    Facts about the state's three large public pension funds:

    Minnesota State Retirement System (MSRS): Covers state employees. Average salary of working members: $48,000. Average monthly pension: $1,600. Employee and employer contribution: Each pays 5 percent of salary. 2010 asset-to-liability ratio: 75 percent.

    •Teachers Retirement Association (TRA): Covers public school teachers, with exception of Duluth and St. Paul. Average salary of working members: $49,000. Average monthly pension: $2,300. Employee and employer contribution: Each paid 5.5 percent of salary in 2009; phased increase by 2014 to 7.5 percent each, enacted in 2010. Asset-to-liability ratio, 2010: 67.5 percent.

    Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA): Covers most local government workers. Average salary of working members: $34,000. Average monthly pension: $1,300. Employee contribution: 6.25 percent of salary; employer contribution: 7.25 percent of salary. Asset-to-liability ratio, 2010; 66 percent.

    • • •

    For the study analyzing defined-benefit vs. defined-contribution pension costs for Minnesota, go to bit.ly/hCpaqK.

    Source: Retirement systems of Minnesota

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