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The plan landed with a thud in the state legislature.
A similar effort by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett went nowhere during the spring session. He wanted to move all new state workers into a 401(k)-style pension system, but lawmakers expressed little interest in the face of sure-fire union opposition.
Conservative groups and state finance experts point to Wisconsin as an example of where pension reform is paying dividends. Changes to public employee benefits that were pushed by Gov. Scott Walker — resulting in massive union-led protests and an unsuccessful recall effort — have saved the state $110 million this year, according to one measure.
Kansas and Alaska have recently reformed their pension systems to include a 401(k)-style plan for new hires, helping to ease the burden of long-term pension costs.
Eucalitto said that should be the end goal, because it saves taxpayers’ money and makes the system more easy for states to manage without the risk of underfunding plans.
It’s also better for employees, he said, because they have individual accounts and if they are getting short-changed by the state it will be readily apparent to them.
“For public employees, they are given greater control over their own retirement and it makes it harder for states to break their promises to their retirees,” Eucalitto said.
Using a different method of accounting for unfunded state pension liabilities, a recent report from Pew Charitable Trusts estimated the gap between states’ assets and obligations at around $750 billion.
Add to that an additional $620 billion in unfunded liabilities for retiree health care coverage, which many states promise to provide to their retired workers in a separate system from traditional pensions.
“Though states have enough cash to cover retiree benefits in the short term, many of them — even with strong market returns — will not be able to keep up in the long term without some combination of higher contributions from taxpayers and employees, deep benefit cuts, and, in some cases, changes in how retirement plans are structured and benefits are distributed,” concluded researchers at Pew.
While both Pew and State Budget Solutions express concerns over higher taxes and cuts to workers’ benefits, states could have other unseen consequences from running up high levels of pension debt.
Earlier this year, Moody’s Investors Service, a bond rating agency, warned that high levels of pension debt could hurt states’ credit ratings and make it more expensive to borrow money via the bond market.
“Pension underfunding has been driven by weaker-than-expected investment results, previous benefit enhancements, and, in some states, failure to pay the annual required contribution to the pension fund,” said Moody’s analyst Ted Hampton.
Moody’s is now assessing states’ pension liabilities and their overall debt levels, he said.
Of the 50 states, those with the highest debt and pension funding needs include Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Illinois.