What a Mess, This Town's in Tatters


In this Sunday's New York Daily News, Mercatus Center academics Eileen Norcross and Todd Zywicki lay out in nauseating if empathetic detail just how hosed the Empire State's finances are because of public employee pensions. Sample:

Tacking on overtime is only one of a long list of union-won perks behind New York's rising pension burden. To dodge a federal law capping public pensions to $195,000 a year, in 1997, Albany  created a second fund for "excess benefits." Twenty-eight New York employees, nearly all teachers, exploited the loophole, leaving taxpayers with a $6 million check this year alone.

These and other sweeteners are part of the reason why the city's annual pension payout has increased 900% since 2000. And that's before health care benefits are included. For every dollar police officers contribute to their retirement, taxpayers contribute nine. Mayor Bloomberg's office warns that if one thing pushes New York City into bankruptcy again—35 years after the last time—it will be pensions.

As Gov. Paterson pins budgetary balance partly on more federal money, and lawmakers throughout the state struggle to balance the books, they have no further to look than their own legislative records for the cause of New York's growing fiscal stress. What is perfectly legal in New York's pension systems is also not fiscally sustainable. […]

Technically estimated at $452 billion as a result of flawed accounting, the real unfunded pension obligation in state pension plans is closer to $3 trillion.

The bill is now coming due.

Professor Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University projects that even if public sector plans earn 8% on their investments, four states—Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut and Indiana—will run out of assets to pay retirees by the end of the decade. States and local governments will soon find themselves up against a painful tradeoff: between closing schools and libraries and cutting other essential services or paying inflated pensions to 50-year-old retirees.

Read the whole thing.

This of course is nothing new to Reason readers, especially of our February 2009 cover story on "The Next Catastrophe" after the initial financial crisis. Link via Glenn Reynolds, who observes: "When this stuff has trickled out from Reason to places like the New York Times and the New York Daily News, you know that it's a story with legs."