The Pension Burden on State Budgets

October 3, 2014
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Cato’s “Fiscal Policy Report Card on America’s Governors” focuses on short-term tax and spending decisions made by governors. But governors and legislatures also make important decisions that will affect state budgets over the longer term.

As Chris Edwards and I discuss in the Report Card, one area of particular concern is compensation for state workers, particularly retirement benefits.

Total wages and benefits for state and local workers was $1.3 trillion in 2013, which accounted for 53 percent of all state and local spending. That is a huge cost that could rise substantially in coming years, particularly in those states that have large funding gaps in their retirement plans. Governments have promised their workers generous pension and retirement health benefits, but most states have not put enough money aside to fund them.

In recent years, many states have modestly trimmed benefits and increased worker contributions for retirement plans. However, more reforms are needed, as recent studies have shown. A study by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College found that the average funding level—the ratio of assets to liabilities—for public employee pensions was just 72 percent in 2013 after declining substantially over the past decade. Based on the usual accounting for these plans, the unfunded liabilities in state and local pensions total $1.1 trillion, according to CRR.

Those numbers understate the size of the problem. Most financial economists think that the discount rate used in official valuations of government pension liabilities is too high, or too optimistic. When CRR used a lower discount rate of 4 percent instead of the average official rate of 7.7 percent, the value of unfunded state and local pension liabilities skyrocketed to $3.8 trillion. Our Cato colleague, Jagadeesh Gokhale, argues even that is too conservative as it only includes currently accrued pension costs. He estimates that the funding gap for accrued benefits plus future accruals under today’s generous pension rules is about $10 trillion.

Many states have made modest reforms to pensions in recent years, but larger reforms are needed. Without reforms, state budgets will be put under increasing stress and part of the burden of pension benefits will land on future taxpayers.

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