Defined benefit pension plans offer politicians a convenient way to satisfy public employee demands while providing the means to defer budgeted cash payments and hide the accumulation of public debt from taxpayers. The authors describe how this plays out in practice and how accounting standards facilitate such activity. The accounting profession, and Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) in particular, could do more to inform taxpayers about the state of public finances. The longstanding failure to do so, the authors argue, allows public debt to accumulate until a crisis is reached.
Like everyone else in the labor movement, I’m nervously awaiting the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which would weaken public sector unions by letting workers receive the benefits of representation without contributing toward the cost.
But I’ve got a unique vantage point: I work in the same building as the plaintiff, Mark Janus.
We’re both child support specialists for the state of Illinois, where we do accounting on child support cases. I do this work because it’s fulfilling to help kids and single parents get the resources they need to support themselves.
What convinced Mr. Janus to join this destructive lawsuit? Your guess is as good as mine. I do know it’s much bigger than him. He’s the public face, but this case is backed by a network of billionaires and corporate front groups like the National Right-to-Work Foundation.
But the truth is, even Mark Janus himself benefits from union representation. Here are a few of the ways:
1. Without our union, Mr. Janus’s job would probably have been outsourced by now. ….
2. Mr. Janus has received $17,000 in union-negotiated raises. ….
3. The public—including the parents and kids Mr. Janus serves—has access to resources like childcare that our union has fought to defend. ….
4. Our union blocked the employer from doubling the cost of Mr. Janus’s health benefits. ….
5. We make sure Mr. Janus’s office is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. ….
6. Thanks to our union, Mr. Janus will retire with a pension. ….
7. Mr. Janus can get sick and still have a job when he comes back. ….
8. Our union ensured that Mr. Janus could be fairly hired, regardless of his politics. ….
It’s about much more than low salaries.
…. In 26 states, average teacher salaries, adjusted for inflation, were less in 2016 than they were at the end of the 20th century, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Two years ago, an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report documented the dive in weekly wages for teachers compared to other workers with comparable education requirements. In 2015, an average teacher made 17 percent less than comparable workers in salary. Back in 1994, the salary gap was 1.8 percent. ….
…. Teachers in Oklahoma still worry about the dangers to student education of going to a four-day school week in some districts. In Kentucky, there’s been no money for teacher professional development, extended school services have been cut and schools haven’t been able to spend money on textbooks.
Arizona school districts will still struggle to fund all the needs that have piled up. Years of cuts have, for example, left the school transportation budget severely underfunded. ….
Where Teacher Salaries Most Lag Behind Private Sector
Source: Mike Maciag, Governing, April 30, 2018
States where teachers are protesting have among the largest pay discrepancies when compared with similarly educated private-sector workers.
In recent years, a significant number of cities, towns, and other municipalities in the United States have found themselves increasingly unable to pay their debts. In order to offer municipalities relief from many types of debts they cannot repay, Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code authorizes certain municipalities to file for bankruptcy. However, filing for bankruptcy may adversely affect the municipality’s creditors, especially beneficiaries of underfunded municipal retirement plans (who, along with bondholders, often hold “the lion’s share” of a municipality’s financial obligations). Because a number of municipalities face a “dramatic and growing shortfall in public pension funds,” many “firefighters, teachers, police officers, and other public employees” who purportedly have “a right to pension benefits at retirement” face a significant risk that their pensions will ultimately not be fully repaid. The fact that public pensions, unlike their private counterparts, are neither subject to the “vesting and funding rules imposed by” the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 nor “protected by the federal pension guarantee program operated by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation” could, according to some commentators, further exacerbate that risk. Moreover, because courts presiding over municipal bankruptcy cases have generally been “amenable to modifying pension debt in bankruptcy,” retirees’ pension benefits may potentially be significantly curtailed when a municipality declares bankruptcy. Although many Chapter 9 debtors have ultimately opted not to cut pensions “for political or practical reasons,” courts and commentators generally accept that, under certain circumstances, municipalities “have the legal ability to shed pension debt” in bankruptcy if they so choose.
This Sidebar first explains how, under current bankruptcy law, Chapter 9 debtors have significant freedom to modify their outstanding pension obligations through the bankruptcy process. The Sidebar then explores proposals to alter the legal principles governing the adjustment of municipal pensions in bankruptcy….
Teachers have staged protests in recent weeks in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado and Arizona. Some are fighting lawmakers who want to scale back their pensions.
It’s no secret that many states have badly underfunded their teacher pension plans for decades and now find themselves drowning in debt. But this pensions fight is also complicated by one little-known fact:
More than a million teachers don’t have Social Security to fall back on.
To understand why, we need to go back to Aug. 14, 1935. That is when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the original Social Security Act.
For the 100 largest public-employee pension systems in the country, assets (cash and investments) totaled $3,785.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2017, increasing by 2.7 percent from the 2017 third quarter level of $3,684.7 billion. Compared to the same quarter in 2016, assets for these major public-pension systems increased 11.6 percent from $3,392.1 billion. The main driver of this gain is earnings on investments, which totaled $142.2 billion during the fourth quarter of 2017. Earnings on investments make up for the deficit between contributions and benefits paid out, and are a critical contributor to the sustainability of pension plans (see Figure 1). The summary highlights the major asset categories (equities, debt instruments, and cash equivalents) and does not reflect all of the categories published for the Quarterly Survey of Public Pensions.
Complete data sets
….Over the last four decades, changes across corporate America have put workers and the broader U.S. society at risk. We’ll talk more about the risks in a bit, but first it’s worth outlining how we got here….
Source: Susannah Bruns Ali, Howard A. Frank, The American Review of Public Administration, OnlineFirst, Published April 12, 2018
From the abstract:
As states move toward offering defined contribution retirement plans as an alternative or addition to traditional defined benefit pensions, they need to consider the preferences and long-term consequences for different groups of employees. This study looks at which plan employees choose when given the option of either a defined contribution or defined benefit plan. The strongest driver of that choice is education level where the most educated prefer defined contribution plans and the least educated stay in defined benefit plans. A unique contribution of this study is that we include region of origin as a study and determine that cultural differences influence plan selection. The study also explores the role of sex, age, and tenure. Challenging other studies on financial planning, these findings indicate that sex and age are not significant factors. This research was conducted using data from more than 4,000 employees from Florida International University and an interview with HR professionals. By understanding retirement preferences in a more nuanced way, we can better craft our approaches to retirement security and financial literacy training in public sector organizations.
Source: Gang Chen, The American Review of Public Administration, Vol. 48 no. 3, April 2018
From the abstract:
State governments establish pension systems to provide retirement benefits to public employees. State governments as sponsors, state legislatures as policy makers, and public-sector unions as representatives of public employees may exert considerable influence over the decisions made in pension systems. This study applies a system framework to examine these influences. It focuses on four decisions in pension systems: benefits, employer contributions, employee contributions, and the asset smoothing period. The findings show that changes in the short- and long-term financial conditions of a state government have different influences on pension decisions, and that legislatures and public employee unions play important roles that affect these decisions.
The brief’s key findings are:
– Since 2001, the aggregate funded status of local pension plans has lagged behind that of state plans, but the gap has been closing recently for two reasons.
– First, local plans continue to receive more of their required contributions than state plans and are a bit more likely to use stringent funding methods.
-Second, in recent years, local plans have earned stronger investment returns than state plans, perhaps partly due to a lower allocation to alternative investments.
– Despite this progress, many local plans – like their state counterparts – still face significant funding challenges.