Without saying so directly, a report about the financial health of the Public Employees’ Retirement System made it clear that taxpayers are going to continue to make unacceptably large contributions to this fund.
The report couches the increased taxpayer responsibility under the term “employer contribution.” This overlooks the fact that much of the money for these employers, starting with cities and counties, comes from local taxpayers. As the contribution increases — it last went up in 2019, to 17.40%, so do the demands on taxpayers, At the very least, rising contributions mean something else doesn’t get funded.
This is an ongoing disappointment in a state whose conservative Legislature prides itself on controlling government spending. Republican lawmakers are determined to reduce the size of state government — why else would a bill to privatize the state parks even be considered? — and they have succeeded to the point that in spite of the rising “employer contributions,” PERS is a lot less stable than it used to be.
Both state and local governments are getting by with fewer workers, and that means less employee money to contribute to PERS. That’s one reason employers/taxpayers have had to put up so much more money.
Historically low interest rates are another reason for PERS’ financial concerns. Most of us can remember a time when the fixed-income bonds and similar safe investments preferred by PERS carried an interest rate of 5% or more. For the past several years those rates have been 1% to 3%, meaning PERS is making less money on its most secure holdings.
The report, written by the Pew Charitable Trust at the request of State Auditor Shad White, includes plenty of warnings. Many have been repeated over the years: The funded ratio of PERS’ assets to its liabilities is low. The ratio of cash flow to assets is low and has been declining for 20 years. PERS’ investments have underperformed stock benchmarks like the Standard & Poor’s 500.
But buried on Pages 18 and 19 of the report is the real zinger: The most likely outcome over the next 20 years is that the employer/taxpayer contribution to PERS will rise to 33% of employee salaries. There also is a greater than 25% probability that this matching contribution will hit 40% by 2040.
This is not sustainable, and it is up to PERS and the Legislature — and probably White, the activist auditor who has been making a strong audition for higher office over the last few years — to come up with some solutions.
Nobody is saying that PERS should go away, or that people who spend their careers as police officers, firefighters or teachers should be deprived of a stable retirement income. But this is turning into a question of what the state and its taxpayers can reasonably afford.
A starting point would be reviewing the 3% annual cost of living increase. But no one wants to offer ideas or solutions for fear of inflaming retirees and workers.