Pennsylvania's pension problem is nothing new. Over the years, lawmakers have tried to salvage the fundamentally broken system instead of creating a system that works. The latest attempt, SB 1071, passed the state House this week.
Like Act 120 of 2010 and Act 40 of 2003, this legislation makes cosmetic changes and promises modest savings that will never materialize.
Pennsylvania's pension plan for teachers and state workers is failing because defined benefit pension plans are vulnerable to swings in the stock market and political whims, leaving taxpayers with a huge bill. In the past six years, our unfunded pension liability has grown from less than $30 billion to $63 billion.
Instead of addressing the retirement systems' exposure to politics and stock market swings, SB 1071 leaves a defined benefit plan in place until a worker reaches $50,000 in salary or 25 years of service. Stacked on top of the defined benefit plan is a defined contribution plan (similar to a 401k), but the $50,000 threshold increases by three percent each year.
Public labor unions could easily accelerate this threshold in the future, lobby to defer payments or increase the multiplier. After all, the original proposal called for a 1% yearly increase.
If that's not a red flag, the cost of the plan should have you scratching your head. The PERC actuarial note claims $5 billion in savings over 30 years, but the savings amounts to just $1 billion in present value terms. A drop in the bucket.
In fact, SB 1071's insignificant savings were wiped out after PSERS announced they are reducing their assumed investment rate of return from 7.5% to 7.25%. This change instantly adds upwards of $2.5 billion to taxpayers' tab.
It's clear SB 1071 is not a step in the right direction. Rather, it's the latest in a long line of pension reform efforts that sweep Pennsylvania's pension problems under the rug.
The next step for SB 1071 is consideration in the state Senate. However, the Senate seems less than keen to advance the bill in its current form. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman noted, “I'm not going to pat myself on the back and say, 'I did pension reform' and end up accomplishing nothing.”
Senator Camera Bartolotta expressed her reservations as well, saying, “We need to put some more teeth into it, we really do.”
There's no easy way to fix our pension system, but going back on our promises to state workers or saddling future generations with debt isn't an option.