How pension costs reduce government services

A think tank at Stanford University, known for bringing investment earnings forecasts into the public pension debate in California, issued a new study last week that looks at how rising pension costs are reducing government services.

The study found that while pension costs in a large sample of retirement systems increased an average of 400 percent during the last 15 years, the operating expenditures of the government employers only grew 46 percent.

Because of the “crowd out” from soaring pension costs, money for services have been reduced, including some “traditionally regarded part of government’s core mission,” said the study by Joe Nation of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.

“As pension funding amounts have increased, governments have reduced social, welfare and educational services, as well as ‘softer’ services, including libraries, recreation, and community services,” said the study. “In some cases, governments have reduced total salaries paid, which likely includes personnel reductions.”

The Stanford institute drew national attention in 2010 when graduate students calculated state pension debt was much larger than reported. To discount future pension debt, they used earnings forecasts for “risk-free” bond rates, rather than stock-based investment portfolios.

Nation’s study uses both the actuarial assumptions baseline of the retirement systems and a bond-based alternative to project that pension costs, even without a big stock-market drop, will continue to crowd out funding for government services during the next decade.

“Employer contributions are projected to rise an additional 76% on average from 2017-18 to 2029-30 in the baseline projection and 117%, i.e., more than double, in the alternative projection,” said the study.

There have not been many attempts to show how rising pension costs reduce services. A report last year from a citizens committee appointed by Sonoma County supervisors found $269 million in “excess costs” in the county retirement system between 2006 and 2015.

With $10 million a year, said the committee, Sonoma County could fund 44 more deputy sheriffs or pay for 40 miles of road improvement. Some Sonoma officials said concern about pension costs played a role in voter rejection of a 1/4-cent sales tax for transportation.

A Los Angeles Times story last month said a big part of a tuition increase at the University of California is going for increasingly generous pensions, including $357,000 a year for a former president, Mark Yudof, who worked for UC only seven years.

David Crane, a Stanford lecturer ousted from the CalSTRS board a decade ago for questioning overly optimistic earnings forecasts, showed in April and July reports how rising retirement costs are “shortchanging students and teachers” despite large school revenue gains.

The new Stanford institute study has 14 separate case studies: the state, six local governments in CalPERS including formerly bankrupt Vallejo and Stockton, the independent Los Angeles system, three county systems, and three school districts in CalSTRS.

The study said their “pension contributions now consume on average 11.4% of all operating expenditures, more than three times their 3.9% share in 2002-03,” and by 2029-30 will consume 14 percent under the baseline, 17.5 percent under the alternative.

In contrast, a survey of the public retirement systems done for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Public Employee Post-Employment Benefits Commission found pension contributions had been stable for more than a decade prior to the report in January 2008:

“Even though State pension contributions have risen in the past decade, they have remained at a relatively stable 3.5% to 4% of total General Fund revenues from the mid-1990s to present. The exception is 1999 to 2002 when contributions were significantly lowered.”

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The Stanford institute’s case study of state spending on CalPERS and CalSTRS said $6 billion was shifted from other expenditures to pensions this fiscal year, much of the money apparently coming from social services and higher education.

The calculation was based on the growing cost of pensions during the last 15 years that, despite an expanding state budget, took 2.1 percent of operating expenditures in 2002-03 and an estimated 7.1 percent of operating expenditures this fiscal year.

The pension share of state operating expenditures in the baseline projection reaches 10.1 percent in 2029-30 and 11.4 percent in the alternative, crowding out an additional $5.2 billion or $7.4 billion.

“This expansion in pension funding requirements could be accommodated with additional 27% reductions in DSS and Higher Education expenditures (or reductions in other agencies and/or departments), or with slightly more than 4% across-the-board budget reductions,” said the study.

In an unrelated coincidence of numbers, the state got a $6 billion low-interest loan from its large cash-flow investment fund this year to double its annual payment to CalPERS, saving an estimated $11 billion over the next two decades by more quickly paying down debt.

The big loan, criticized by some who wanted more study, was bolstered late last month by a state Finance department analysis of the cash management, repayment plan, interest rates, investment earnings, and expected savings.

Annual state payments to CalPERS are expected to average about 2.2 percentage points less over the next two decades. Peak miscellaneous rates would drop from 38.4 percent of pay to 35.7 percent, peak Highway Patrol rates from 69 percent of pay to 63.9 percent.

“It is expected that any deviation from assumed CalPERS returns, or projected U.S. Treasury rates, will still result in significant net savings, and that any issues with funds’ ability to repay its share of the loan can be absorbed by the repayment schedule and effectively resolved,” said the Finance analysis given to the Legislature.

The California Public Employees Retirement System, like many public pensions, has not recovered from huge investment losses in the financial crisis a decade ago. The CalPERS state plans only have 65 percent of the projected assets needed to pay future pensions.

CalPERS estimates the $6 billion extra payment will increase the funding level of the state plans by 3 percentage points. The Finance analysis also said the extra payment would “partially buy down the impact” of a lower CalPERS discount rate.

Last December CalPERS lowered the investment earnings forecast used to discount future pension costs from 7.5 percent to 7 percent, triggering the fourth employer rate increase since 2012.

The annual valuations CalPERS gave local governments this fall reflect a drop of the discount rate from 7.5 percent to 7.35 percent next fiscal year, the first step in a three-year phase in.

number of cities unsuccessfully urged the CalPERS board last month to analyze two ways to cut pension costs: suspend cost-of-living adjustments and give current workers lower pensions for future work.

The Oroville finance director, Ruth Wright, told the CalPERS board: “We have been saying the bankruptcy word.” Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter created a stir by using the “bankruptcy word” at a city council meeting on Sept. 26 while talking about rising salaries and pension costs.

“How do we get this under control? How do we keep this city sustainable so we don’t have to file for bankruptcy?” Gunter asked.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

This article was originally published by Calpensions.com.

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