State Fiscal Constitutions and the Law and Politics of Public Pensions

Source: Amy Monahan, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities – School of Law, Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-24,May 13, 2014

from the abstract:
Pension plans for state and local employees are, as a whole, significantly underfunded. This underfunding creates intense fiscal pressure on governments and often either crowds out other desired governmental spending or results in employees and retirees losing earned benefits. Political theorists often explain that underfunded public pension plans are all but inevitable given the political realities that affect funding decisions. Politicians who desire to be reelected should rationally prefer to spend money on current constituents, rather than commit scarce funds to a pension plan to pay benefits due to workers decades in the future. These dynamics are exacerbated by existing state fiscal constitutions that require balanced budgets and often restrict the ability to raise taxes. Paying a pension plan less than the amount due provides an easy way to free up money in the state budget by creating a form of debt that is not reflected on the state’s balance sheet. This article presents original analysis of the effect that state fiscal constitutions – even those that contain explicit requirements to fund public pension plans – impact public pension funding dynamics. It finds that even where explicit constitutional funding requirements are in place, plans often continue to be underfunded both because of political and financial pressures, and also because of the distinct lack of an enforcement mechanism. The article concludes by suggesting that these weakness in pension funding requirements can be addressed through the creation of clear and objective funding standards and, most importantly, through the creation of enforcement mechanisms that can, where appropriate, override legislative decisions to underfund public pension plans.