Monday, January 23, 2012

Pension reform across the country

By Jamey Dunn

All four legislative leaders and Gov. Pat Quinn have said that pension reform is a priority in the upcoming legislative session, but their opinions differ on what would be best for the state and legal under the Illinois’ Constitution. Recent reforms in other states could provide models as lawmakers move forward. This three-part series will look at different aspects of reform in other states. 

As Illinois looks at its seriously underfunded retirement system for state workers, it is not alone. A recent Pew Center on the States study found that at a 51 percent funding level, Illinois has the most under-funded pension system in the nation as of Fiscal Year 2009. However, 30 other states were also under the recommended 80 percent funding level. In FY 2008, 22 states fell below that funding level. Overall, state pensions were funded at a 78 percent level in fiscal year 2009, which is down from 84 percent in FY 2008.

“We’ve talked about pension reform in this state until we’re blue in the face. We know what needs to be done. We know that other states have done what we need to do, like Rhode Island,” House Minority Leader Tom Cross said during a recent news conference.

It is fitting that Cross would cite Rhode Island as an example, since it is the only state that has in recent years taken some controversial pension reform steps similar to a proposal from Cross. David Draine, senior researcher for the Pew Center on the States, called Rhode Island’s reforms “the only [recent] example of a state that really changed the terms of pension benefits for current employees.”

The plan, approved by Rhode Island lawmakers and signed into law late last year, would freeze cost of living increases for current retirees. Current workers would keep all of their benefits to date, but they would be shifted to a so called-hybrid plan for future benefits. Part of their retirement investment would go into a defined benefits plan and part of it would go into a defined contribution plan, much like a 401(k). Some of the payout would be guaranteed, and some of it would be tied to the performance of investments. The retirement age would also increase for many workers.

Rhode Island had one of the largest funding gaps in the country relative to its size. The state operated its fund on a pay-as-you-go basis from the 1930s until the 1970s. “Pension systems with really severe problems often started out as 'pay-as-you-go' plans, in which retirees derived their benefits from current state revenues, not any pool of accumulated cash. Inevitably, the number of retirees grew, relative to the number of current employees, and the checks going out the door took up a larger and larger portion of state revenues,” said a study of state pensions from the Pew Center on the States. “You’re paying for the sins of the past,” Frank Karpinski, executive director of the Rhode Island system, told Pew.

If the reforms in Rhode Island survive the expected court challenges, they are projected to reduce the state’s more than $7 billion unfunded liability by $3 billion. That plan passed with the bipartisanship that Cross is seeking for pension reform in Illinois. It was backed by the Democratic state treasurer and independent governor. However, unlike Illinois, Rhode Island does not have a provision in its constitution protecting pension benefits.

Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo, who created plan for change and traveled the state for almost a year to promote it, said that the debate was not marked by the anti-union rancor that characterized labor disputes in states such as Wisconsin. But a backlash has begun. “This would be different if it was given to us. No one gave us anything. We paid for these pensions,” Michael Downey — president of Council 94, Rhode Island's largest public employees union — told Rhode Island Public Radio. Downey said the unions are gearing up for a court challenge as well as a political battle. “When you are retired and you go to check your monthly statement, you won't forget this. You'll remember this. Will it be remembered in the polls? I'm sure it will,” he said.

The main similarity that the Rhode Island plan has to Cross’ proposal is that it would change the benefit structure for employees hired before its creation. Under Cross’ plan, workers would keep previously earned benefits but then would have to choose between paying more for their current benefit level, having their benefits reduced or moving to a 401K-type plan known as a defined contributions program. Illinois currently has a defined benefits plan that guarantees employees a specific level of benefits no matter what happens to the pension funds’ investments. Instead of requiring employees to choose between defined benefits or defined contributions, plans like the one passed in Rhode Island rely on a combination of both.

So-called hybrid pension plans have become popular in recent years. In addition to Rhode Island, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Utah and Washington all have hybrid style pension plans. Under these plans, employees do not chose between a defined benefits and defined contribution plan but participate in both. Most typically, employee contributions are placed into a 401(k)-type savings plan while state funds pay out defined benefits. While hybrid plans have been getting recent attention, the majority of states still have defined benefits plans.

“Currently, [the hybrid] plan design is receiving increased attention as states find that closing a traditional defined benefit pension plan to new employees could increase — rather than reduce — costs, and that providing only a 401(k)-type plan does not meet retirement security, human resource or fiscal needs,” said a report from the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. Legal issues aside, transitioning from a defined benefits to a defined contribution plan can be tricky because those who have retired under the defined benefits plan will still get their benefits. If there are no new enrollees in a defined benefits plan, it cuts off a large source of funding to the plan, and the state often has to make up the difference.

“It is difficult — usually impossible — to save money certainly in the near term by closing down a pension plan and moving to a defined contribution plan,” said Keith Brainard, research director for National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

Check back tomorrow for a look at the legal battles in other states over scaling back cost of living increases for retirees.

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