Act 120

Underfunded Pennsylvania Pension Funds Need Real Reform

Pennsylvania is facing a multi-billion dollar public pension crisis – now is the time for pension reform in Harrisburg.  The Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS) and the State Employees Retirement System (SERS), the two systems administering retirement accounts for state and public school employees, are severely underfunded and will become insolvent without an increase in taxpayer contributions.

In discussing the need for pension reform, in December 2010, I wrote . . .

“did you know that more than half the state’s municipal pension plans are less than 90 percent funded?  Calculated as the ratio of assets to liabilities, 644 municipal pension plans are labeled as “distressed” by the state’s Public Employee Retirement Commission (PERC).  Of those, 26 are less than 50 percent funded and branded as “severely distressed.”

I cannot speak for the accuracy of those numbers thirteen months later, but I have to believe that they have not improved.

One of the last bills signed into law as Gov. Rendell was leaving office was HB 2497, which became Act 120.  But instead of reforming the defined-benefit pension system, this legislation ‘kicked the pension can’ further down the road, by deferring pension payments and increasing the unfunded liability by billions of dollars in lost investments and interest – in essence, leaving the problem on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.

In the old days, the nature of traditional pension coverage in the private and public sector was quite similar; the majority of all employees were covered by a defined benefit plan where the liability of the pension lies with the employer. However, there is a reason why in the last decade that the vast majority of private sector employees have turned away from defined benefit plans to some form of a 401(k) type plan – the challenge of keeping a defined-benefit plan, particularly in our unstable economic climate, has proven too great for most companies to bear.

Defined-benefit plans may provide the best financial safety net for employees, but most private sectors can no longer afford to maintain them – the strain on the company balance sheets has proved too large for firms to withstand.  And even in the case where a company struggled to keep a traditional defined-benefit plan in place, the economic downturn has prompted plan changes whether they were preferred or not.

Teachers and state workers should not be targeted as public enemies because of their benefit packages. However, I just do not see how their defined-benefit plan (in its present form) is sustainable for the future.  Clearly, pension reform should not affect any vested state employees or pensioners already in the system – changes should only affect future employees.

From the taxpayer side, we are angry because we have to make up the state’s pension fund losses as we watch our own 401(k) accounts depleting. The teachers argue they never took a vacation from paying into the system and that a pension is necessary to attract and keep good teachers.  Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) the state’s largest teachers union is on record that will oppose any proposed changes to Act 120, such as a 401(k) type of defined contribution plan. This is a catch-22 situation; we want to maintain a high quality of teachers and state workers in Pennsylvania, but we cannot afford the current pension price tag.

During the last election cycle, there was much discussion from school board candidates about the District’s financial situation and possible solutions, including imposing an earned income tax.  Some candidates believed that because the financial problems were caused by Harrisburg, that it should be up to the state to find the solution, not the school districts (taxpayers).  Candidate and now re-elected school board president Karen Cruickshank called on the state to “fix your mess” and suggested that residents contact their legislators and the governor to push for pension reform.

State Rep Warren Kampf (R-157) has an editorial, “Change the pension system to help taxpayers” in today’s Phoenixville Patch. In the article, Kampf states that his pension reform legislation,

“will require all new state employees and those hired by school districts to participate in a defined contribution plan (like the 401k-style plan that is prevalent in the private sector) where the taxpayer would  be required only to match the employee’s contribution. This would be in lieu of the traditional defined benefit pension plan”. 

Under Kampf’s plan, state employees would have a system similar to the private sector where an employee owns their 401(k) plan and takes it with them if they leave the job.  In a Community Matters article from December 2010 (cited earlier) I wrote,

“. . . As another form of fiscal responsibility, Kampf announced that he would not be taking the state’s defined-benefit pension plan and will work on the creation of a defined 401K-type plan for legislators and state employees.” 

I have not agreed with all of Kampf’s votes since he took office, but to give credit where due . . .  Kampf’s promise to work on pension reform were made prior to his taking office in 2011, and today we learn that he plans to introduce his proposed reform legislation this spring.  (Click here to read the Phoenixville Patch editorial).

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