Thursday, December 14, 2017

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Giving Illinois local governments control over their workers’ pensions

The Chicago Tribune makes a “modest proposal” this week. Discouraged by the inaction of the Illinois General Assembly on state-wide pension reform, the editorial board supports the idea that costs for teacher pensions should be shifted and shared with local governments. Republicans, fearful of property tax hikes, don’t like the notion. But the Tribune makes a good point: the cost shift should be accompanied with the ability of local governments to directly negotiate with their employees minus the influence of Springfield. It’s an interesting idea.

Ultimately, pension reform must proceed according to certain principles that clarify the following:

a) What is the true and full value of the benefit? The market valuation principle.

b) How do you incentivize such a system to properly value, steward, and fund benefits? The principal-agent problem.

c) How do you connect the full employee wage/benefit bill with taxpayers who enjoy the services? The fiscal illusion problem.

Right now, it’s a mess. Government accounting is a still a jumble. (But the real value is always knowable via market valuation.) No entity currently has the incentive to properly value and fund these systems. And in fact, we continue to see risk-taking and the shifting of assets into alternative investments, the issuance of Pension Obligation Bonds, and the deferral of reforms. Politicians have a short-term horizon.

And then there is the problem of “disjointed finance.”

Take the case of New Jersey. Local governments negotiate with their employees over wages. But pension policy is set by the state. New Jersey municipalities get an annual bill to fund their employee pensions based on the state actuary’s calculations. Local officials don’t have any sense of what those obligations look like going forward. The state’s annual funding calculations low-ball what is needed to fund the benefits. Could it be that such opacity leads local governments to offer wage enhancements, or hiring increases, that translate into total compensation packages that they can’t afford?

The Chicago Tribune’s idea only works if Illinois local governments accurately calculate what is needed on an annual basis to fund the pensions they negotiate with their workers and to have a full assessment of the value of compensation packages over time. How is market valuation incentivized? Perhaps Moody’s move to calculate pensions based on a corporate bond yield will have an effect. Or perhaps plans need to be managed by a third-party, as Roman Hardgrave and I suggest in our 2011 paper. 

Tying local costs to local taxpayers is a good idea. Another phenomenon the pension problem has revealed is gradual separation of taxing and spending in American public finance over the course of the past half century. That has produced a growing fiscal illusion in finance – where things seem less expensive than they actually are since the costs are spread over larger groups of taxpayers. Local costs are spread among state taxpayers, and now the worry is that state pension costs and debts will be spread across national taxpayers. At least, it’s been suggested.

In his 2012 budget, Governor Quinn alluded to a federal government guarantee  of Illinois’ pension debt. It’s not a popular idea with Congress at the moment. But it appears to have been part of the political calculations of those who are responsible designing and enforcing the rules that guide Illinois’ budget and determine pension policy.