For the third time in 10 years, legislators are considering financial repairs for Minnesota’s public pension plans. The message this time is that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with our pension system; our retired public employees are just living longer than expected. Many argue that making prompt changes to adjust for longer life expectancies — and lowering our investment expectations in light of market realities — again shows how prudently and responsibly we manage these plans.
But dump all the talking points in a colander, shake well, and this is what’s left behind:
• Our pension plans should have $75 billion in hand today to pay for benefits to existing retirees and for the retirement benefits that public employees who are still working have already earned.
• As of the beginning of 2016 the pension plans had only $58 billion in retirement assets.
• That $75 billion is enough only if the retirement assets earn an average of 8 percent every year in the future. The pension plans’ own actuaries have put the odds on realizing that goal over the next 20 years at just slightly better than 1 in 3. If we only can earn an average of 7 percent every year, we should have around $85 billion in hand right now. According to the actuaries, the odds of earning a 7 percent return are no better than a coin flip.
• Even if fantastic investment returns are available in the future, we still need the money to take advantage of them. Thanks to changing demographics, pension plans are now paying out more in benefits than they are taking in from contributions to invest to meet future retirement obligations. Last year alone, cash flows out of Minnesota’s pension funds exceeded inflows by more than $2 billion. As this trend continues, and less capital is retained to invest, it will become more and more difficult to rely on investment performance alone to get out of this hole.
• In addition to all this, employees will earn additional benefits as long as they keep working, and all these new benefits need to be funded, too.
As Capt. Ross said to the jury in the movie “A Few Good Men: “These are the facts. And they are undisputed.”
If that looks like a daunting situation, it is. If that looks like a future promising bigger contributions from government and its employees — “shared sacrifice,” as it’s often called — and that redirects more and more tax dollars away from delivering public services and into pension support, that would be a very good bet.
If that sounds a little different from the public assurances of sound management and fiscal responsibility, it’s because pension reporting does a spectacular job of muddling, confusing and distorting economic reality.
Remember all the finger-waving and indignation expressed in recent years over the fiscal irresponsibility of using shifts and “gimmicks” to balance the state budget? All of those practices are junior varsity stuff compared to what takes place in the world of public pensions.
Public pension policy across the United States is the NFL of fiscal convenience. Thanks to practices that violate Finance 101 and never-ending payback periods for existing pension debt, literally hundreds of billions of dollars of existing obligations and contribution requirements are being pushed onto future taxpayers and future public employees.
Here in Minnesota, our sensible pension policies (and, yes, they do exist) are offset by using some of the most aggressive accounting practices to be found in anywhere in the U.S. The result is that our pension costs look much cheaper than they really are. Level the accounting playing field across the country, and our much-ballyhooed “low cost” reputation vanishes.
A recent study published in the American Economic Journal, which leveled this field, found the revenue increases needed from each Minnesota household to achieve full pension funding in 30 years ranked seventh-highest in the nation.
The effects of these practices are compounded when policymakers extend the payoff periods for pension debt over and over again.
Proper pension management demands that future taxpayers should not have to pay for both the retirement benefits their own generation of workers earn and those of earlier generations. This means that pension debt for today’s workers should be paid off by the date when, on average, a current employee is expected to retire.
But when pension costs get politically uncomfortable, we push the dates for full funding further out — effectively refinancing the debt to keep our current costs down. A key feature of our sustainability plans has been saddling future taxpayers with past costs and younger public employees with the retirement costs of their predecessors.
The result is a transfer of both cost and risk to future taxpayers and future public employees on a scale never before seen in this state. This latest round of sustainability repairs — although necessary — just continues our history of “pretend and extend” pension policies.
Sooner or later, accounting conveniences will collide with financial reality. Financial reality will win. Our kids will lose.
Here’s the good news: We aren’t in the intensive-care unit as so many other states are with their pension plans. But we can’t get healthy by pretending everything is OK and resisting a proper diagnosis.
Here’s even better news: We can fix this. There are lots of reform options both inside and outside of traditional defined-benefit pension plans that can deliver on the twin goals of offering public employees a high-quality, secure retirement while eliminating long-term risks to taxpayers and government services.
We can fix this in a way that meets the interests of everyone who has a stake in the system: public employees, retirees, governments and taxpayers. All we need is a few good women and men to make this happen.
Mark Haveman is executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence.