As the upcoming race for governor begins to take shape, here’s something that ought to be right at the center of the debate: the horror show that remains the state’s employee pension funds. The latest figures on the state’s debt are out from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the legislature’s fiscal unit, and
As the upcoming race for governor begins to take shape, here’s something that ought to be right at the center of the debate: the horror show that remains the state’s employee pension funds.
The latest figures on the state’s debt are out from the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, the legislature’s fiscal unit, and it’s one unending dirge of bad news. All that’s missing is a little charcoal and sack cloth.
Among the toplines: Total unfunded pension liability for the state’s five retirement systems was up again in fiscal 2020, hitting an almost unfathomable $144.2 billion, an increase of roughly $7 billion from the previous year. That record deep hole occurred even though taxpayers contributed a record high amount, with the tab in 2021 scheduled to rise another $500 million to $9.76 billion.
There’s more: The total funded ratio of the five funds – the percentage of future liabilities that are covered by available assets – dropped to 39 percent from 40.3 percent. That effectively puts us back where we were way back in 2009 at 38.5 percent, despite a decade of tax hikes, increased taxpayer contributions and an overall booming investment market.
Sort of like a treadmill that never, ever stops however much you’re out of gas.
COGFA cites two main reasons for the ever-deepening hole.
The first is something that’s been written about a lot, but really hasn’t sunk in with many voters: Even now, the state still isn’t paying what the actuaries say is needed to hit the goal of a 90 percent funded by 2045.
In 2020, for instance, inadequate employer (or state) contributions were responsible for $2.227 billion of the increase in unfunded liability, the COGFA report says. Some of that is by design—the entire idea behind the state’s current pension funding system was to start slow, but build up to full funding.
Yet, the state never seems to get any closer. Though annual taxpayer contributions increased sevenfold between 2001 and 2021, they’ll have to more than double in the next two decades or so. And that’s only if the state meets its investment objectives.
But, so far, the state hasn’t been meeting those objectives, which is the other big reason for last year’s poor performance. The funds assume return on investments of 6.5 percent to 7 percent. But none of them came close to that in fiscal 2020, which ended June a year ago. In fact, the huge Teachers Retirement System barely made money at all on its $52 billion in assets, with a return of just 0.6 percent.
A spokesman for TRS was not immediately available for comment.
Now, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office has suggested that the state is nearing a turning point as more workers getting high retirement benefits in Tier 1 are getting replaced by Tier 2 workers who were hired after 2011. The COGFA report provides a little backing for that theory, saying that scheduled contributions as a percentage of payroll should slowly rise over the next decade or so, moving from 47 percent now to around 54 percent. In other words, we should start to catch up.
Maybe. If there are no more bumps. If returns on investment bump back up. And if taxpayers are content to add hundreds of millions of dollars in incremental new pension spending each year.
Not pretty. And whoever runs for governor really, really needs to talk about it.