It's a scam of almost unmatchable balls and cruelty, accomplished with the aid of some singularly spineless politicians. And it hasn't happened overnight. This has been in the works for decades, and the fighting has been dirty all the way.
There's $2.6 trillion in state pension money under management in America, and there are a lot of fingers in that pie. Any attempt to make a neat Aesop narrative about what's wrong with the system would inevitably be an oversimplification. But in this hugely contentious, often overheated national controversy – which at times has pitted private-sector workers who've mostly lost their benefits already against public-sector workers who are merely about to lose them – two key angles have gone largely unreported. Namely: who got us into this mess, and who's now being paid to get us out of it.
The siege of America's public-fund money really began nearly 40 years ago, in 1974, when Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. In theory, this sweeping regulatory legislation was designed to protect the retirement money of workers with pension plans. ERISA forces employers to provide information about where pension money is being invested, gives employees the right to sue for breaches of fiduciary duty, and imposes a conservative "prudent man" rule on the managers of retiree funds, dictating that they must make sensible investments and seek to minimize loss. But this landmark worker-protection law left open a major loophole: It didn't cover public pensions. Some states were balking at federal oversight, and lawmakers, naively perhaps, simply never contemplated the possibility of local governments robbing their own workers.
Politicians quickly learned to take liberties. One common tactic involved illegally borrowing cash from public retirement funds to finance other budget needs. For many state pension funds, a significant percentage of the kitty is built up by the workers themselves, who pitch in as little as one and as much as 10 percent of their income every year. The rest of the fund is made up by contributions from the taxpayer. In many states, the amount that the state has to kick in every year, the Annual Required Contribution (ARC), is mandated by state law.
Chris Tobe, a former trustee of the Kentucky Retirement Systems who blew the whistle to the SEC on public-fund improprieties in his state and wrote a book called Kentucky Fried Pensions, did a careful study of states and their ARCs. While some states pay 100 percent (or even more) of their required bills, Tobe concluded that in just the past decade, at least 14 states have regularly failed to make their Annual Required Contributions. In 2011, an industry website called 24/7 Wall St. compiled a list of the 10 brokest, most busted public pensions in America. "Eight of those 10 were on my list," says Tobe.
Among the worst of these offenders are Massachusetts (made just 27 percent of its payments), New Jersey (33 percent, with the teachers' pension getting just 10 percent of required payments) and Illinois (68 percent). In Kentucky, the state pension fund, the Kentucky Employee Retirement System (KERS), has paid less than 50 percent of its ARCs over the past 10 years, and is now basically butt-broke – the fund is 27 percent funded, which makes bankrupt Detroit, whose city pension is 77 percent full, look like the sultanate of Brunei by comparison.
Here's what this game comes down to. Politicians run for office, promising to deliver law and order, safe and clean streets, and good schools. Then they get elected, and instead of paying for the cops, garbagemen, teachers and firefighters they only just 10 minutes ago promised voters, they intercept taxpayer money allocated for those workers and blow it on other stuff. It's the governmental equivalent of stealing from your kids' college fund to buy lap dances. In Rhode Island, some cities have underfunded pensions for decades. In certain years zero required dollars were contributed to the municipal pension fund. "We'd be fine if they had made all of their contributions," says Stephen T. Day, retired president of the Providence firefighters union. "Instead, after they took all that money, they're saying we're broke. Are you fucking kidding me?"
There's an arcane but highly disturbing twist to the practice of not paying required contributions into pension funds: The states that engage in this activity may also be committing securities fraud. Why? Because if a city or state hasn't been making its required contributions, and this hasn't been made plain to the ratings agencies, then that same city or state is actually concealing what in effect are massive secret loans and is actually far more broke than it is representing to investors when it goes out into the world and borrows money by issuing bonds.
Some states have been caught in the act of doing this, but the penalties have been so meager that the practice can be considered quasi-sanctioned. For example, in August 2010, the SEC reprimanded the state of New Jersey for serially lying about its failure to make pension contributions throughout the 2000s. "New Jersey failed to provide certain present and historical financial information regarding its pension funding in bond-disclosure documents," the SEC wrote, in seemingly grave language. "The state was aware of . . . the potential effects of the underfunding." Illinois was similarly reprimanded by the SEC for lying about its failure to make its required pension contributions. But in neither of these cases were the consequences really severe. So far, states get off with no monetary fines at all. "The SEC was mistaken if they think they sent a message to other states," Tobe says.
But for all of this, state pension funds were more or less in decent shape prior to the financial crisis of 2008. The country, after all, had been in a historic bull market for most of the 1990s and 2000s and politicians who underpaid the ARCs during that time often did so assuming that the good times would never end. In fact, prior to the crash, state pension funds nationwide were cumulatively running a surplus. But then the crash came, and suddenly states everywhere were in a real, no-joke fiscal crisis. Tax revenues went in the crapper, and someone had to take the hit. But who? Cuts to corporate welfare and a rolled-up-newspaper whack of new taxes on the guilty finance sector seemed a good place to start, but it didn't work out that way. Instead, it was then that the legend of pension unsustainability was born, with the help of a pair of unlikely allies.
Most people think of Pew Charitable Trusts as a centrist, nonpartisan organization committed to sanguine policy analysis and agnostic number crunching. It's an odd reputation for an organization that was the legacy of J. Howard Pew, president of Sun Oil (the future Sunoco) during its early 20th-century petro-powerhouse days and a kind of australopithecine precursor to a Tea Party leader. Pew had all the symptoms: an obsession with the New Deal as a threat to free society, a keen appreciation for unreadable Austrian economist F.A. Hayek and a hoggish overuse of the word "freedom." Pew and his family left nearly $1 billion to a series of trusts, one of which was naturally called the "Freedom Trust," whose mission was, in part, to combat "the false promises of socialism and a planned economy."
Still, for decades Pew trusts engaged in all sorts of worthy endeavors, including everything from polling to press criticism. In 2007, Pew began publishing an annual study called "The Widening Gap," which aimed to use states' own data to show the "gap" between present pension-fund levels and future obligations. The study quickly became a leading analysis of the "unfunded liability" question.
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