Tag: PERS

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The Era of Permanent Prosperity Is Over: It’s Time for a Serious Budget Discussion

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The 2020 we’re living in is very different from the 2020 we rang in at the beginning of the year.

In January, there were about a dozen Democrats seeking the nomination for President. Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free college tuition, and universal basic income were seriously debated as potential policies for a Democratic President.

State and local politicians in Oregon were eagerly awaiting the first payments from the billion-dollars-a-year Corporate Activities Tax (CAT), the money earmarked to finally pull Oregon out of its near-last in the nation ratings of K-12 achievement. Cap-and-trade would end climate change. More bike paths, sidewalks, and light rail—always more light rail—would put an end to traffic congestion. A booming stock market meant we’d never have to reform PERS.

Today, schools are shuttered, businesses are crushed by the CAT, and TriMet ridership has evaporated and may never come back. Climate change is the least of our worries, and PERS will likely sink the state.

We began the year with an illusion of permanent prosperity, a game of musical chairs in which the music never ends. There wasn’t a single problem that couldn’t be solved with more spending. Tax increases were sold as equal to the cost of a latte a day. But, there were a lot of lattes.

Little did we know the music would stop so soon. Never mind buying a latte a day, today half the state can’t get a haircut even if they could afford one. Not only is the state’s education system deeply flawed, we learned our unemployment system is completely broken and our health care system is way more fragile than we thought. Rather than ramping up testing, the state simply tells us to “Stay home. Save lives.” The myth of permanent prosperity has given way to a reality of endemic dysfunction.

The latest revenue forecast for the state should be a wakeup call for the governor and the legislature. With anticipated revenues down $2.7 billion from pre-COVID projections, there is no way to avoid big budget cuts. Tax increases must be ruled out—struggling households and businesses need the cash to pay their own bills. We can’t turn the public sector’s budget problems into a private sector bankruptcy crisis. It’s going to take strong political leadership.

Three program areas make up nearly 90% of the state budget: education, human services, and public safety. Employee compensation—salaries, PERS, and other benefits—are a huge portion of these costs. There is no way to balance the budget without cuts in these areas.

PERS must be reformed. The first step should be to move all new employees to a 401(k)-type defined contribution program. This small move won’t solve the impending pension catastrophe; it’s simply a crucial first step toward more meaningful reforms. The most meaningful would be an amendment to the state’s constitution specifying public sector employment agreements are not contracts.

Public school spending must be cut. Construction projects should be shelved, and the money used for planning these projects should be shifted to the classroom. Introducing an education savings account program could save the state money by encouraging students to pursue schooling outside of the public sector, thereby reducing public school enrollment and expenditures. The state’s university system must be streamlined. This means closing smaller, struggling public institutions that have demonstrated a low return on investment for their students.

The legislature should reconsider Oregon’s participation in Medicaid expansion. While the feds pick up 90% of the costs for the expansion population, the cost to the state for the other 10% is eye-popping. In the last budget cycle, the state faced a $1.7 billion budget shortfall. At the time, Governor Kate Brown claimed, “Three-fifths of this deficit is the cost of expanding health care to all Oregonians.” That was when the economy was going gangbusters. Today, Medicaid expansion is a luxury the state cannot afford.

The cynic says, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Nevertheless, a crisis is a time to re-evaluate priorities, and the best measure of politicians’ priorities are the budgets they pass. The era of permanent prosperity has ended, and we have entered an age where rational realism must rule.

: Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in urban economics and regulation. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Ballot Measures with No Accountability Deserve a No Vote

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

We all need to raise questions about our politicians’ priorities and how they spend our money. Even well-meaning policies should be skeptically scrutinized. Especially well-meaning policies. At the heart of every crisis in Oregon, there’s a policy that’s gone sideways. From PERS to CoverOregon to housing affordability and homelessness to massive overruns on Portland Public Schools construction: All are failures because of inadequate scrutiny.

That’s why I’m opposed to both Metro’s housing measure and the renewal of Portland’s 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax. They’re both unfair taxes and are likely to fail to make any measurable improvement in the lives of Oregonians.

Much of the blame for the Portland area’s housing affordability and homelessness can be placed on Metro and other local governments’ decades-long policy to pursue density at any cost. Their push for expensive high-rise housing has displaced housing that was once available for low- and middle-income residents. Their refusal to expand the urban growth boundary has stifled any development of affordable housing on the edges of the region.

Now Metro tells us it will cost $250 million a year to deal with the problems their own policies have caused. Homelessness and affordable housing is a regionwide problem that affects almost everyone. However, Metro crafted their measure so the costs of Measure 26-210 fall on only 10% of households and businesses. That’s not a “we’re all in this together” approach, it’s an “us vs. them” approach—it’s not just unfair, it’s wrong.

Over and over in the endorsement interviews, the measure’s proponents were asked who they’re going to help and how they’ll measure success. Over and over, the proponents deflected from these obvious questions, saying it’s complicated or too hard to put numbers to. Willamette Week, which endorsed the measure, details the lack of accountability:

Here’s what gives us pause: The supporters of Measure 26-210 cannot say with any specificity how they plan to spend this money.

They don’t know how much money would be spent on rent assistance, how much on addiction treatment, how much on mental health care, and how much on employment services.

When pressed, the architects of the measure did not promise a single metric for measuring how many would be served by these tax dollars, or what aid they’d get. They have shielded themselves from failure by never saying what success might look like.

When most people think of the homeless crisis, they think of the people sleeping in doorways, under overpasses, or in their cars. They think of the camps scattered across the city. Even so, neither Metro nor Measure 26-210’s proponents can say how many people will get off the streets or how many camps will clear out. If there are no clear measures of success, then there’s no accountability, and the crisis will never clear up.

Portland’s streets are a mess. By the city’s last estimates, Portland has a road paving backlog of about 3,100 lane miles. That’s enough to pave a two-lane road from Pioneer Square to El Paso, Texas. Over the years, Portland has taken money away from road maintenance to spend on light rail and streetcars. For example, in 2009, Portland committed $30 million to the Milwaukie light rail project. That same year, the city eliminated paving projects on local streets. In 2012, the city suspended major paving projects.

Now Measure 26-209 is looking to raise about $75 million in gas tax revenues over the next four years to fund Portland’s “Fix Our Streets” program.

Except, very few of the streets will actually be repaired. The list of proposed projects shows paving projects for only seven miles of city streets. That’s less than one percent of the current backlog.

In the endorsement interviews, proponents claimed sidewalk repair would be a key areas of gas tax spending. But, again, the list of proposed projects identifies a total of only one mile of sidewalk repairs.

Take a look at the breakdown of spending under Measure 26-209. Many of the projects are designed to increase congestion and make things worse for drivers.

  • $4.5 million for Neighborhood Greenways designed to impose burdens on auto drivers. PBOT defines “Neighborhood Greenways” as “Streets with low traffic volume and speed where bicycles, pedestrians and neighbors are given priority.”
  • $1.5 million for all the “In Motion” plans—Northwest In Motion, North Portland In Motion, Southwest In Motion. All designed to make driving a car more costly. They’re more like “Slow Motion” plans.
  • $2 million for speed bumps.

We have a housing affordability and homeless crisis. We have a traffic congestion crisis. Both tax measures aspire to solve pressing problems. However, both measures are doomed to fail. They both lack the accountability that is necessary for effective government. That’s why Cascade Policy Institute spends so much time and energy staying on top of these issues—to provide skeptical scrutiny and accountability where they’re needed most.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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The Upcoming PERS Crisis: The system is facing a $30 billion shortfall—radical reform is needed

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Coronavirus has hit the economy hard. Nearly all the stock market gains from the past two or three years have been wiped out. While it’s painful for investors and retirees, it’s likely to fuel the third major PERS crisis since the dot-com bust.

PERS, the public employee retirement system, has two major sources of funds: investment returns and employer contributions. PERS investments are managed by the state treasurer, under guidance from the Oregon Investment Council. “Employers” are state and local governments whose employees are PERS members.

PERS charges these employers a rate equal to some percent of their payroll to fund the costs of their employees’ anticipated retirement benefits. Currently, the average rate is approximately 25% of payroll. For example, for a city employee with a salary of $60,000 a year, the city must pay an additional $15,000 to PERS.

One of the many factors that affect the employer rate is the unfunded actuarial liability, or UAL. The UAL is an estimate of how much money would be needed to pay off all existing beneficiaries if the system were liquidated. Think of it this way: If you sold everything you owned—house, car, checking, savings, retirement—would you have enough to pay everyone you owe? If you don’t, you have unfunded liabilities.

PERS currently has a UAL of $24.5 billion. If PERS liquidated all its assets to pay its existing members, the system would be $24.5 billion short. The employer rate is set to fill that gap over a period of approximately 20 years. So, if the UAL increases, the employer rate increases. Similarly, if the UAL decreases, so does the employer rate.

Here’s where investment returns come in.

Because of the way PERS benefits are calculated, the system’s investments must earn an average of at least 7.2% a year to stop the UAL from getting bigger. That’s a very aggressive, and optimistic, target.

In good times, when PERS investments earn above average returns, the money from the investments reduces the UAL, which in turn reduces the employer contribution rate. If, on the other hand, PERS investments tank, the UAL balloons, and state and local governments must make bigger contributions to fill the gap.

PERS investment returns are correlated with stock market returns. Generally speaking, in a bull market, PERS investments run with the bulls; when the market drops, PERS investments suffer as well.

The stock market is down more than 20% from the beginning of the year. That means PERS investments would be down by about 11%. Based on past experience, such a drop would add another $6 billion to PERS’ unfunded liabilities, for a total UAL of about $30 billion.

Let’s say the economy improves and the stock market recovers all its losses, ending the year unchanged from the beginning of the year. PERS investments would be up by about 5%, based on past experience. Even so, PERS unfunded liabilities would increase by about $3 billion for a total UAL of about $27 billion.

Based on these observations, it’s very possible that state and local governments would face an employer contribution rate for PERS of 30% or more. That $60,000 employee would now come with an $18,000 additional cost to pay for PERS.

Where will that additional money come from?

It’ll come from us. Legislators and local governments will be under tremendous pressure to raise taxes to pay for skyrocketing PERS costs. Along with that will come budget cuts, with fewer teachers, state police, foster care workers resulting in bigger class sizes, reduced law enforcement, and more children stranded in the foster system. It’s not just a financial crisis, it’s a human crisis.

PERS has been a ticking time bomb for two decades. Attempts at meaningful reform have been put off by timid politicians and thwarted by powerful public employee unions. In the first PERS crisis of 2002, the system’s unfunded liabilities were less than $4 billion. In the second crisis, beginning in 2008, the UAL ballooned to $16 billion. Today, we’re looking at a third crisis with a UAL of $30 billion or more, or nearly $19,000 per household.

We are entering an era in which PERS cannot be merely tweaked or reformed. We are entering a PERS crisis that will require a radical overhaul of the entire system. It can begin with some straightforward first steps:

  1. Move all new public employees into a 403(b) defined contribution plan. These are similar to the 401(k) plans held by many private sector employees. TriMet has already made the switch, and it saved the agency from insolvency.
  2. The PERS Board must change its assumed rate of return on PERS investments. Because of the mismatch between assumed and actual investment returns, PERS is accruing liabilities much faster than it’s growing its assets. Bad assumptions were unsustainable 20 years ago, and they’re disastrous now.

These are just first steps that can be handled quickly in an emergency session of the legislature and an emergency meeting of the PERS board. There’s never a good time to upset the public employee unions. Now that we’re in a crisis, it’s time for leadership and action to save the state from fiscal disaster.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Is Oregon Really “Disinvesting” in Education?

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The Portland Association of Teachers declares Oregon has suffered “a 30-year disinvestment in education.” That’s a bold charge. Thirty years is a long time, and disinvestment is a strong word.

To disinvest literally means “to reduce or eliminate” investment. Is it true that Oregon has reduced investment in public schools over 30 years? No.

Multnomah County’s Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission has been tracking school spending in the Portland area for more than 30 years. A review of Portland Public Schools spending since 1985 shows that per student spending in Oregon’s largest school district has steadily increased over the past 30 years, as shown in the figure below.

Over the past three decades, both total spending and spending on instruction at PPS have grown faster than the rate of inflation. In recent years, Portland schools have spent about $30,000 per student, with almost $8,000 per student spent on instruction.

 

Portland Public Schools spending in dollars per student

Since the last recession, PPS total spending has accelerated. Voters in the district have approved nearly $1.3 billion in construction bonds since 2012. In 2011 and 2014, voters approved and renewed a local option property tax increase for Portland schools. Another renewal of the $95 million tax is expected to be on the ballot this year.

In Oregon, total expenditures per student were $13,037 in 2016, the most recent year for which information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Oregon is exactly in the middle of the state rankings of per student total expenditures. Six states, including Oregon, Washington, and California, have per student spending that is within five percent of the national average. Total expenditures include salaries, employee benefits such as health insurance and PERS, supplies, and debt service, among other things.

According to the state’s Legislative Revenue Office, annual state and local education spending in Oregon has increased by about $1.7 billion over the past ten years. This amounts to $2,350 in increased spending per student and has greatly outpaced the rate of inflation.

Despite Oregon’s smack-dab-in-the-middle per student spending, the state ranks near the bottom in graduation rate, produces mixed results on standardized tests, and has the sixth-highest student-teacher ratio in the U.S.

These dismal outcomes are not the result of disinvestment; they are a result of misinvestment—a diversion of education spending away from classroom teaching.

The Public Employee Retirement System and other benefits are the biggest drivers of Oregon’s education finance problems. The cost of paying for public employee retirements has doubled over the past ten years. In 2009, school districts paid approximately 15% of payroll to fund PERS. The latest estimates indicate next year, districts will have to pay 30% of payroll. A big piece of current so-called “instructional” expenditures is actually spent to pay for teachers who have retired.

In general, health insurance premiums for teachers in Oregon are lower than those of teachers in California or Washington, but Oregon teachers pay a much smaller share of the premium. Research indicates Oregon teachers pay approximately 12% of the premium, while teachers in California and Washington pay 22-45%.

Many school districts have taken on additional debt to reduce their PERS obligations and fund construction. Interest payments on debt are taking money out of classrooms. Census data indicate Oregon schools pay almost $600 per student per year in interest payments alone, making it the fourth highest state in per student interest payments.

Oregon taxpayers continue to support and invest in the state’s education, and any claims of disinvestment are simply wrong. Because of misplaced priorities, too many dollars earmarked for education are not used to teach students the skills they need to be productive and successful adults. PERS must be overhauled, and educational spending should be directed toward increasing high school graduation rates and making measurable improvements in academic achievement.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on May 21, 2019.

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May 8 Should Be Declared “Fix PERS Now Day”

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The Oregon Education Association is organizing a statewide walk-out May 8 related to what it says is inadequate school funding. What they’re really demanding is a $2 billion tax increase.

Districts across the state, including Portland, Beaverton, North Clackamas, Gladstone, and Eugene have canceled classes for the day, forcing working parents to stay home or line up day care for the strike. The teachers surely have their chants and songs already scripted for their rallies. But, there’s one slogan the teachers won’t be shouting. That’s: “Fix PERS Now!”

District administrators appear to be in support of the Oregon Education Association’s unauthorized strike. West Linn-Wilsonville superintendent Kathy Ludwig said, “OEA’s purpose with this rally is to send the message to all Oregonians that public school funding has been insufficient for decades and needs to be addressed.” A written statement made to the Portland teachers’ union by superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero reads: “Our educators and students deserve better. It is long overdue that we prioritize schools in Oregon.”

The claim that Oregon hasn’t prioritized public education is simply wrong. Portland Public Schools voters have approved nearly $1.3 billion in construction bonds since 2012. In 2011 and 2014, voters approved and renewed a local option property tax increase for Portland schools. Another renewal of the $95 million tax is expected to be on the ballot this year.

In Oregon, total expenditures per student were $13,037 in 2016, the most recent year for which information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Oregon is exactly in the middle of the state rankings of per student total expenditures. Six states, including Oregon, Washington, and California, have per student spending that is within five percent of the national average. Total expenditures include salaries, employee benefits such as health insurance and PERS, supplies, and debt service, among other things.

According to the state’s Legislative Revenue Office, annual state and local education spending in Oregon has increased by about $1.7 billion over the past ten years. This amounts to $2,350 in increased spending per student and has greatly outpaced the rate of inflation.

Despite a booming economy with increased tax revenues and funding for schools, many districts claim they are facing a funding gap. Beaverton expects to cut more than 200 teachers. Portland plans to eliminate 45 classroom teaching positions and combine many fourth and fifth grade classrooms. These announcements raise the question: Why are districts cutting staff in the face of rising revenues?

PERS and other benefits are the biggest drivers of Oregon’s education finance problems. The cost of paying for public employee retirements has doubled over the past ten years. In 2009, school districts paid approximately 15 percent of payroll to fund PERS. The latest estimates indicate next year, districts will have to pay 30 percent of payroll. The increased cost of PERS alone in the next biennium would cause the average class size to increase by two to four students per classroom.

It gets worse. In reaction to earlier PERS crises, many school districts took on additional debt to reduce their PERS obligations. The interest payments on the bonds are taking money out of classrooms. Census data indicate Oregon schools pay almost $600 per student per year in interest payments alone, making it the fourth highest state in per student interest payments.

The OEA claims it’s seeking more spending to reduce class sizes and improve graduation rates. However, the Oregon Business Council calculates PERS will consume much of the $2 billion in tax increases under consideration by the legislature. Without meaningful PERS reforms, Oregonians will face decades of multi-billion-dollar tax increases every time the legislature meets.

The frustration of teachers is understandable. They are on the front lines of education. However, walking off the job is the wrong approach and sets a poor example for students. It punishes pupils, parents, and employers for our politicians’ failure to fix PERS. It also misses the mark strategically because the legislature doesn’t have any more money, and neither do put-upon taxpayers. Parents who are forced to stay home to watch their kids on May 8 should take them on a field trip to the OEA’s rallies with signs of their own, reading, “No New Taxes—Fix PERS Now!”

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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More Money for Schools Is Meaningless Without Controlling PERS Costs

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Several members of the Portland Public Schools Community Budget Review Committee recently co-authored an essay entitled, “The under-funding of schools must end.”

The authors assume that all money problems at public schools are the result of insufficient tax support; but the reality is that schools have been unable to control costs, especially related to pensions.

For example, in 1998 Oregon schools were required to send premiums equal to 9.9% of their salaries to pay for their share of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS).

Since then, those rates have gone up steadily and will reach 18.3% later this year—an increase of 84% over two decades. Some school districts will pay much more. Sherwood school district will pay 27% of salaries for their PERS Tier 1 and Tier 2 obligations. Tigard-Tualatin school district will pay 28%. Tillamook Community College will pay 21%.

School support from the Oregon general fund has doubled since 2001, but it doesn’t do much good when tax money entering the front door of schools leaves out the back door for retirees. In many cases, those former workers are earning more in retirement than they did when they were actually teaching.

Unless the legislature is willing to take strong measures to control the cost of PERS, there will never be enough money to satisfy public school advocates.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Time to Stop the PERS Pac-Man from Eating Teachers’ Salaries and Taxpayers’ Pocketbooks

By Steve Buckstein

What do Pac-Man and public pensions have in common? An intriguing 2016 national study of pension debt and teacher salaries recently answered this question. Depending on what economic assumptions are made, it’s likely that unfunded public pension liabilities for all states and local governments exceeded $6 trillion in 2017. Based on the same assumptions, Oregon’s share of those liabilities likely approached $50 billion.

The study, The Pension Pac-Man: How Pension Debt Eats Away at Teacher Salaries, by Chad Aldeman of Bellweather Education Partners, concluded that unfunded public pension liabilities were eating away at teacher salaries in every state—just like the old arcade game Pac-Man. This happens because the school districts teachers work for have to pay an increasingly larger share of their budgets into retirement funds for teachers who are no longer teaching, at the expense of those currently in the classroom.

In effect, America’s public school teachers are being charged on average about $6,800 a year—money that could be boosting their paychecks—to preserve what are becoming increasingly inequitable public pension systems. The inequality stems from the shifting nature of state pension systems that compensate older (and currently retired) teachers at higher rates than they will younger ones.

So where do Oregon teachers stand? Compared to the national average of about $6,800 per teacher, Oregon basically has to charge our teachers $7,398 a year to cover our unfunded PERS liabilities. That’s more than in all but 14 other states.

One might conclude that Oregon teachers consequently have lower salaries than teachers around the country because of this large pension hit. Not true. The nation’s largest teachers union reported that the average Oregon teacher earned $61,862 a year in 2016-17, compared to the national average of $59,660. That put our teachers in thirteenth place for average teacher pay among the 50 states.

Then again, Oregon teachers might be expected to earn more because, again according to that recent union report, in 2017 Oregon had more revenue per student in its public school system than 30 other states. We had $14,827 per student in average daily attendance, compared to the national average of just $13,900.

So, even though Oregon teachers are being hurt by our large public pension debt, they still earn more than teachers nationwide, and even more relative to their Oregon neighbors who pay the taxes to fund those higher teacher salaries while earning less than the national average themselves. All-in-all, Oregonians compensate our public school teachers relatively well.

Even though the latest, so-called Tier 3 or OPSRP PERS system has a less generous defined-contribution element than Tier 1 PERS workers earned, taxpayers should not be on the hook for unknown, and unknowable, pension costs going forward. It’s unknowable costs like these that have led to the current, nearly $7,400 annual debt burden on our teachers, districts, and taxpayers.

If Oregon had no unfunded PERS liabilities, three things could happen. Teachers might argue they should see an average raise of almost $7,400 per year, while school districts might want to put that money toward other district expenses that benefit students. Taxpayers might expect to see their Oregon personal income tax bills reduced if the state managed its public pension funds responsibly.

But none of these outcomes will occur because Oregon hasn’t managed PERS responsibly. As long as this continues, the outcome will be what’s unfolding now: higher taxes and greater school district payments to fund pension liabilities that few saw coming—and that threaten to continue, like Pac-Man, to eat away at teacher salaries, school district budgets, and taxpayer pocketbooks.

To stop the PERS Pac-Man, our Governor and legislators need to get serious about PERS reform, specifically by ending the “defined-benefit” elements of PERS for all work done in the future, either by new employees or current ones. Instead, the legislature should move all public employees, including teachers, to 401(k)-style defined-contribution retirement plans, which are the only kind of plan available to most taxpayers. The costs to future teachers, schools, and taxpayers will only get worse if we don’t end the PERS Pac-Man once and for all.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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How the PERS Pac-Man Eats Teacher Salaries

By Steve Buckstein and Kathryn Hickok

What do Pac-Man and public pensions have in common? An intriguing 2016 national study of pension debt and teacher salaries recently answered this question. Depending on what economic assumptions are made, it’s likely that unfunded public pension liabilities for all states and local governments exceeded $6 trillion last year. Based on the same assumptions, Oregon’s share of those liabilities likely approached $50 billion.

The study, The Pension Pac-Man: How Pension Debt Eats Away at Teacher Salaries, by Chad Aldeman of Bellweather Education Partners, concluded that unfunded public pension liabilities are eating away at teacher salaries in every state—just like the arcade game. This happens because the school districts teachers work for have to pay an increasingly larger share of their budgets into retirement funds for teachers who are no longer teaching, at the expense of those currently in the classroom.

To stop the PERS Pac-Man from eating teacher salaries, Oregon’s Governor and state legislators need to get serious about PERS reform. They should end the “defined-benefit” elements of PERS for all work done in the future. Instead, public employees, including teachers, should move to 401(k)-style retirement plans. The costs to future teachers, schools, and taxpayers will only get worse if we don’t end the PERS Pac-Man once and for all.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade.

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End PERS—For a Day!

By Steve Buckstein

Most Oregonians know that our state’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) is some $25 billion to $50 billion under water. Promises made to past and present government workers, primarily those hired before 1996, were simply way too generous for taxpayers and entities like school districts to afford.

A misreading of the so-called Contracts Clause in the U.S. Constitution by the Oregon Supreme Court has meant that once a government employee was hired in the state, the terms of his or her employment could not be altered, even for work done in the future.

One remedy for this situation might be to fire all public employees for a day, thus canceling their PERS contracts, and then hire them back the next day under new, less generous terms. If you think that’s a non-starter, something similar actually happened in Oregon before.

In 1953 the Oregon legislature passed a law ending the PERS system—for one day—so that the new system could include public employees in the (then) relatively young federal Social Security program. That one-day change was for the benefit of the workers. But it just might be a precedent to do something similar today for the benefit of taxpayers and public agencies. Let’s see who picks up this controversial ball and runs with it.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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TriMet Shows Pension Reform Is Possible

By Scott Shepard and John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon legislature recently adjourned its 2018 session and once again took no action to reduce the long-term financial obligations of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System. Conventional wisdom in Salem is that significant pension reform is impossible, so we should just quietly accept our fate that the PERS crisis will lead to layoffs at public schools and other service providers.

The conventional wisdom is wrong.

The Portland regional transit district, TriMet, is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100 percent of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations.

This stands in contrast to “defined-benefit” programs like PERS in which employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management clueless about the major level of funding obligation they’ve agreed to.

The advantages for taxpayers of moving public employees into defined-contribution pensions is now evident in the actuarial projections done for TriMet. According to the most recent valuation, estimated annual benefit payments for TriMet defined-benefit pensions will peak in 2034 at $74.6 million, then drop to $24 million in 2060 and $6 million by 2072. They will hit zero by the turn of the century.

This was not something that TriMet did casually. Management was forced into it because of decisions made in the 1990s that caused long-term retiree obligations to explode. The TriMet Board realized that changes were necessary and voted to move all new, non-union hires into defined-contribution pensions after 2002.

Resistance from the bargaining unit kept TriMet from moving its new unionized workers to defined-contribution plans for another decade, by which time a citizens’ committee had issued a report declaring TriMet “on the brink” of disaster. During a protracted negotiation with the union in 2012, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel testified at a binding arbitration hearing that unless changes were made, “TriMet could be forced to default on its pension obligations or its other financial obligations in the future.”

Union leadership eventually agreed to move all new members to defined-contribution pensions by 2013. As a result, the number of active employees still accruing defined-benefit pension benefits fell from 1,580 to 1,460 during 2016. Last year, the unionized workers’ defined-benefit account reached nearly 80 percent funding; and the long-term, unfunded pension liability dropped by nearly $50 million.

The defined-contribution plan to which TriMet moved new workers has been recognized as one of the best in the country. It features low costs, high returns, and a guaranteed employer contribution that is paid irrespective of employee matching contributions.

TriMet’s pension reform offers a valuable guide to the Oregon legislature on how to contain and reverse the spiraling PERS disaster. The unfunded liabilities for PERS have grown from $16 billion to more than $25 billion in less than ten years.

Some reduction in PERS benefits will have to happen, and all parties will benefit from an orderly transition while there is still time. The state should emulate TriMet by moving its employees from defined-benefit to defined-contribution plans as soon as possible.  However, the legislature will be obliged to make bigger changes than would have been required years ago. It will have to move all current workers, whenever they were hired, to defined-contribution plans for all work performed after the date of the effective legislation.

The sooner this is done, the less painful later steps will be. As former TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane noted recently, solving a pension crisis “doesn’t get any easier with passing time.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Scott Shepard is a lawyer who recently authored a new case study of TriMet’s pension reform for Cascade Policy Institute. The study, “Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Pensions a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health,” is available here. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune.

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TriMet Shows Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon legislature recently adjourned and once again took no action to reduce the unfunded liabilities of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). The reason is that most legislators think PERS reform is impossible. 

That belief is wrong. 

TriMet is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100% of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” (DC) pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into retirement accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. 

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised high levels of retirement payments regardless of how investment funds are performing. 

The success of the TriMet reforms can be seen in its latest pension fund valuation, which shows that annual benefit payments for pensions will peak in 2034 at $75 million, then drop to zero by about 2085.           

TriMet’s pension reform offers a guide to the legislature on how to reverse the spiraling PERS disaster, where unfunded liabilities have grown to $25 billion. The state should move all employees to defined-contribution plans as soon as possible. 

This essay summarizes a new Cascade study of TriMet’s successful pension reform program. “Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Plans a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health” can be found here.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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TriMet Shows That Public Pension Reform Is Possible

By Scott Shepard and John A. Charles, Jr.

The Oregon Legislature is currently meeting, and the conventional wisdom is that reform of Oregon’s overly generous Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) is impossible. According to Governor Kate Brown, we signed contracts with public employee unions, a deal is a deal, and we should just quietly accept our fate that the massive cost of PERS will lead to layoffs and service cuts at schools and other service providers.

There is another way.

The Portland regional transit district, TriMet, is not part of PERS and has been slowly reforming its pension program since 2002. As a result, 100% of all new employees are now in 401(k)-style pensions that have no long-term liabilities for employers. These are referred to as “defined-contribution” (DC) pensions in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. The eventual pension payouts will be a function of the market performance of whatever investments are chosen by individual employees.

This stands in contrast to “defined benefit” (DB) programs like PERS in which employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management mostly clueless about the level of funding obligation they’ve agreed to. In many cases, those liabilities turn out to be much larger than expected.

The advantages for taxpayers of moving public employees into DC pensions is now evident in the actuarial valuations done for TriMet. According to the most recent valuation, projected annual benefit payments for TriMet DB pensions will peak in 2034 at $74.6 million, and then steadily decline to $6 million in 2072. They will hit zero by the turn of the century.

This was not something that TriMet did casually. Management was forced into it because of decisions made a decade earlier that caused long-term retiree obligations to explode. TriMet Board members are appointed by the governor. In the early 1990s, Governor Barbara Roberts and TriMet General Manager Tom Walsh wanted public approval of a massive expansion of TriMet’s light rail empire and the tax funding to pay for it. They feared that controversy about a union contract could endanger public support.

In their efforts to avoid strife, in 1994 they granted expensive concessions to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 (“the ATU”) on behalf of its represented employees. Loren L. Wyss, the long-serving president of TriMet, objected and his battle with Walsh became public. In back-channel communications with Gov. Roberts, Walsh made it clear that either he or Wyss needed to go. In August 1994, Wyss met with Gov. Roberts, where he submitted his resignation.

As later explained in The Oregonian,

“…the contract just approved by Tri-Met union employees will protect all its members from additional contributions to their pensions for 10 years. It will also guarantee 3 percent minimum wage increases in the future…every single dollar of health, welfare, dental and vision plans will be paid for by the public employer; [and] the retirement age will decline to 58 within 10 years….”

The die was set for cost escalation. In the decade from 1994 to 2004, salaries and wages increased 72 percent; annual pension costs went up 160 percent; and the cost of health care benefits rose 116 percent. These increases plus stagnant revenues in the latter half of the period resulted in a tripling of unfunded pension liabilities, from $38 million in 1993 to $112.4 million in 2002.

Fred Hansen followed Tom Walsh as General Manger; and he moved new, non-union hires into DC pensions after 2002. This was a first step towards fiscal sanity. Resistance from the ATU kept TriMet from moving its new unionized workers to DC plans for another decade, by which time a citizens’ committee of Portlanders had issued a report declaring TriMet “on the brink” of disaster.

During a protracted negotiation with the union in 2012, TriMet CFO Beth deHamel testified at a binding arbitration hearing,

“TriMet’s union defined benefit plan would be placed on critical status and under federal oversight if it were a private pension plan subject to ERISA.” She also stated that unless something was done to shore up the plan, “TriMet could be forced to default on its pension obligations or its other financial obligations in the future.”

Union leadership eventually agreed to move all new members to DC pensions by 2013, while protecting existing members from reform. As a result of this delay, the union workers’ DB fund remained only 59 percent funded in 2013.

Nevertheless, the trends were now moving in the right direction. The number of active employees still accruing DB pension benefits fell from 1,580 to 1,460 from 2016 to 2017 alone. In 2017 the unionized workers’ DB account reached nearly 80 percent funding, with unfunded liability falling by nearly $50 million in a single year.

Neil McFarlane was TriMet General Manager during that era. He commented recently, “The shift [to DC pensions] has been a success. TriMet is paying more than the required annual contribution every year right now” because the system is closed. “We will be fully funded within the next few years: five to ten for the union plan, fewer for the non-union.”

The DC plan to which TriMet moved new workers has been recognized as one of the best in the country. It features low costs, high returns, and a guaranteed employer contribution that is paid irrespective of employee matching contributions. As a DC plan it does not create open-ended, unpredictable public liabilities to be paid by generations as yet unborn.

TriMet has not fully banished the ghosts of unsustainable employee-benefit promises past. It still faces a massive and escalating unfunded liability driven by health care costs, known in accounting jargon as “other post-employment benefits,” or OPEB. The health care benefits that TriMet granted away in the 1994 contract debacle have been described as “universal health care into the afterlife.”

The description is only a minor exaggeration, as the plan offered TriMet’s unionized employees health care without premiums and with mere $5 co-pays, and benefits that ran not only throughout retirement, but to the employees’ spouses and dependents for fully 16 years after the employees’ deaths. Total unfunded liability for OPEBs reached an astonishing $769 million dollars in 2016.

Compare: State Paralysis on PERS 

TriMet’s pension reform efforts offer a valuable guide to the Oregon legislature on how to contain and reverse the spiraling PERS disaster. The unfunded liabilities for PERS have grown from $16 billion to more than $25 billion in less than ten years, even with the far-too-optimistic 7.2 percent assumed-savings rate (i.e., discount rate) in place. Were the rate adjusted down to its actuarially appropriate level, PERS’ unfunded liability would explode to $50 billion or more at a stroke.

Even at the current recognized rate, funding status has fallen below 70 percent, even while mandatory payments to PERS by government employers have passed 26 percent of payroll.

Municipalities are laying off workers, depleting public services, and raising fees in order to fund the present level of recognized PERS unfunded liabilities. Some reduction in pension benefits will have to happen, one way or another. All parties will benefit from an orderly effort to reform benefits while there is still time. 

The Way Forward

The state should follow the tracks laid by TriMet by moving its employees from DB to DC plans as soon as possible. As TriMet has demonstrated, this move will begin to stanch the fiscal wounds that have been inflicted by a generation of recklessly overgenerous pension benefit promises.

Unfortunately for everyone, PERS reform has been hamstrung for more than 20 years by a wayward state Supreme Court, which has thwarted previous attempts at thoughtful change with erroneous interpretations of the federal Contract Clause. The legislature will be obliged to make bigger changes than would have been required years ago. It will have to move all current workers, whenever they were hired, to DC plans for all work performed after the date of the effective legislation.

While this reform will be significant, it also will be deeply equitable. Right now, older workers are receiving higher benefits for each hour worked than ever will be available to younger workers. This isn’t fair, and it may violate civil rights laws: Younger workers are more diverse than their older peers, which means that benefit reductions that affect only new workers have a disparate impact on women and minorities.

The reform will also pass constitutional muster. As the Oregon Supreme Court finally recognized in its Moro decision, correcting its long-held error, the legislature may change any benefits for work not yet performed, even for current employees.

The Oregon Legislature can and must follow TriMet’s example. The sooner this is done, the less drastic any later steps will be. According to TriMet General Manager McFarlane, solving a pension crisis “doesn’t get any easier with passing time.”

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market research center. Scott Shepard is a lawyer and was a visiting law professor at Willamette University during 2016. This essay is a summary of a case study of TriMet’s pension reform written by Mr. Shepard for Cascade Policy Institute. The full report is available here. This essay was originally published in the February 2018 edition of the newsletter “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change,” a project of Third Century Solutions.

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Following in TriMet’s Tracks: Defined-Contribution Pensions a Necessary First Step to Oregon’s Fiscal Health

By Scott Shepard

Scott Shepard is a lawyer and was a visiting law professor at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon during 2016. He is the author of “A Lost Generation but Renewed Hope: Oregon’s Pension Crisis and the Road to Reform,” an academic study on Oregon state pensions published August 1, 2017 by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is an Academic Advisor to Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research center.

Introduction 

As recently as 2012, TriMet faced a pension funding disaster. Indefensibly overgenerous pension benefits granted in the early 1990s threatened to bankrupt the public transit system and to cripple the Portland metro area. While TriMet still has difficult reform ahead of it (regarding its other post-employment benefits promises), it has achieved pension fund stability by replacing its unsustainable defined-benefit pension promises with a well-designed, defined-contribution retirement plan.

“Defined-contribution” (DC) pensions are retirement benefit plans in which monthly payments are made by management into personal accounts owned by employees. Once those payments are made, the employer has no further financial obligations. The eventual pension payouts will be a function of the market performance of whatever investments are chosen by individual employees.

This stands in contrast to “defined-benefit” (DB) programs like Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). Under DB programs, employees are promised various levels of retirement payments calculated through arcane formulas that leave management mostly uninformed as to the level of funding obligation to which they have agreed. In many cases, those liabilities turn out to be much larger than expected. 

TriMet has brought its pension funding liabilities under control by moving its employees from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans: first its management employees hired after 2002, then its unionized employees hired after 2012. The shift followed the lead of most private sector businesses, the federal government, and an increasing number of states. As a result of the change, TriMet’s pension obligations are moving steadily and reliably toward full funding within the near to medium term. This glide path to full funding is allowing the organization to focus on other vital personnel issues such as managing the cost of other post-employment benefits (“OPEBs,” which are primarily health care benefits for unionized workers) for current workers and retirees.

Oregon and its municipalities can only envy TriMet in this regard. The defined-benefit PERS funding costs continue to spiral out of control. These unbridled expenses are crushing local governments and school districts, forcing layoffs, hiring and wage freezes, bigger class sizes, reduced government services, and increased taxes. The failure to reform harms younger and more diverse workers at the expense of their older colleagues, and private-industry workers in favor of their government-employee neighbors. Taxpayers have said “enough,” voting 60-40 in 2016 against significant state tax hikes that inevitably would have been dedicated to helping to fund the PERS shortfall.

One necessary step toward addressing this problem is for the state of Oregon to follow in TriMet’s tracks, moving PERS workers from DB to DC plans. TriMet started down this road fully 15 years ago, while the state has dithered. Oregon must play catch-up by moving all PERS-covered workers to DC plans for work to be performed after the changeover.

This move by itself likely will not be enough to solve Oregon’s public pension crisis. The state has already promised more than it can reasonably pay. But moving to DC plans for all work not yet performed is a necessary first step. And the faster the legislature acts, the less severe—and the less upsetting to retirees and current and future employees—will be the other reforms required later.

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Kate brown attention deficit disorder

Kate Brown’s Attention Deficit Disorder

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The most serious problem facing Oregon right now is the exploding costs of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). The PERS crisis is so severe that the Oregon Legislature should make it the only issue addressed in the February 2018 legislative session.

But Governor Brown isn’t interested in reducing the PERS liability. That would take too much work and might offend her public employee union campaign contributors. So instead she has signed two Executive Orders purporting to address “climate change,” ahead of her jaunt to Bonn, Germany next week to attend a United Nations conference on global warming.

Her Executive Orders impose a blizzard of costly requirements on new buildings, including requirements for new homes to meet energy efficiency guidelines by 2023, and mandates for new homes to be solar-panel-ready by 2020. New buildings will also have to accommodate electric vehicles, regardless of whether the owners ever intend to own such vehicles.

The Governor is also setting a fantasy policy goal that Oregonians own 50,000 electric vehicles by 2020, more than three times the current ownership level.

Oregon desperately needs political leadership to avoid a PERS-induced death spiral. Unfortunately, all we’re getting is a Governor flying halfway around the world to escape reality.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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