Pennsylvania’s Pension Crises
by Mike Folmer, PA State Senator
August 21, 2014
President Kennedy said: “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”
Pennsylvania’s failure to address its public pension problems recently resulted in another downgrade of its bond rating: from Aa2 to Aa3. According to the rating agency Moody’s, “. . . the expectation that large and growing pension liabilities coupled with modest economic growth will limit Pennsylvania’s ability to regain structural balance in the near term.”
Consider where Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) was prior to 2001 changes enhancing benefits: $9.5 Billion surplus and a 123.8% funded ratio (100% is an appropriate ratio). Using the most recent actuarial valuations, the funded ratio for the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) and PSERS (using an optimistic 7.5% annual asset return assumption) was 59.2% and 63.8% respectively. Further declines are expected.
Pennsylvania’s private sector has predictable and affordable pension costs while providing employees with competitive retirement benefit packages. Over 70% of these firms have defined contribution plans for new hires with average employer costs ranging from 4% to 7% of payroll. (All private sector defined benefit plans must eliminate any deficits over time – often as short as seven years).
Ignoring such facts has resulted in unsustainable plans in states from New Jersey to California. Cities like Chicago and Detroit face bankruptcy because of public pension costs.
Courts have said public pension benefits once earned are protected by Pennsylvania’s Constitution: Article I, Section 17, “Impairment of Contracts.”
I’m not part of the legislative pension system as I believe Article II, Section 8 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution doesn’t provide for elected officials’ pensions: “The members of the General Assembly shall receive such salary and mileage for regular and special sessions as shall be fixed by law, and no other compensation whatever, whether for service upon committee or otherwise.”
This same provision is why I also return my legislative cost of living adjustment: “No member of either House shall during the term for which he may have been elected, receive any increase of salary, or mileage, under any law passed during such term.”
Nonetheless, I’m regularly asked why Pennsylvania underfunds its public pension plans. Taxpayers fear proper funding policies will result in districts increasing property taxes to pay pension contributions. Schools say the alternative is cutting programs or increasing class sizes.
Failure to contribute at least the actuarially recommended contribution transfers ever-mounting debt to future generations. The combined liabilities of SERS and the PSERS are over $50 Billion – and growing. These costs are the fastest growing state budget line item.
Separate from proper plan funding are new GASB (Government Accounting Standards Board) accounting and reporting standards to assess current and future pension obligations. Unfunded liabilities will now be reflected on school districts’ balance sheets and the underfunding issue will be further highlighted. Increasing numbers of municipal and school audits will be flagged due to GASB 67 (“Financial Reporting for Pension Plans”) and GASB 68 (“Accounting and Financial Reporting for Pensions”) standards.
In 2009, legislation (which I opposed) was enacted attempting to address Philadelphia’s public pension problems: a temporary 1% Sales and Use Tax increase. This “temporary” tax was subsequently extended. Purchases in Philadelphia include an 8% Sales Tax. However, Philadelphia’s pension liabilities have continued to grow. Like Pennsylvania’s infamous “temporary” 1936 Johnstown Flood Tax, this tax continues to exist and continues to grow. Ironically, Philadelphia is being flooded with pension liabilities.
In 2010, another law was passed to address Pennsylvania’s pension issues. Act 120 made some benefit changes for new employees, including: raising the vesting period to 10 years from five, reducing the multiplier to calculate retirement benefits (to 2.0% from 2.5%), increasing the retirement age for new employees to age 65, eliminating lump sum payouts of employees’ contributions and interest upon retirement, and limiting maximum retirement benefits to 100% of final actual salary.
But, Act 120 also continued the practice of underfunding, which further deferred state and local pension contributions to future years through “collars:” below recommended actuarial levels, which reduce public pension funding by about $1 Billion to $2 Billion annually. Such sustained underfunding has resulted in numerous credit downgrades. This is why I also opposed this measure.
Supporters of the status quo urge the General Assembly to allow Act 120 “time to work.” However, since passage of Act 120, pension liabilities have grown to $50 Billion from $41 Billion; the original assumptions of Act 120 have shown Act 120 has failed to attain its goals.
This $50 Billion deficit is growing by over $10 Million a day – over $3 Billion a year. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth, municipalities, and schools are allowed by law to underfund these plans by about $1 Billion to $2 Billion a year. Every 0.5% reduction in SERS and PSERS assumed investment returns adds approximately $7 Billion to their combined unfunded liabilities. If PSERS would compute its unfunded liability using market value of assets, this change alone would immediately add about $8 Billion to the deficit.
Failure to both properly fund these plans or move new hires to a defined contribution plan will only make matters worse (the claims of unaffordable transition costs are vastly overstated). Taxpayers should fear higher taxes to continue to fund public pensions. Public employees should fear their continued solvency.
There is a cost for inaction.
Two weeks ago marked the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act.
It applies to federal designation of remote areas, not to states. States can create their own wild areas, and some do. States closest to human populations and land development seem to also be most assertive about setting aside large areas for people and animals to enjoy.
I enjoy wilderness a lot. Hunting, camping, hiking, fishing, and exploring are all activities I do in designated wilderness.
Every year I hunt Upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains, in a large designated wilderness area. Pitching a tent miles in from the trail head, the only person I see is a hunting partner. Serenity like that is tough to find unless you already live in northern Vermont, Maine, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming or Alaska. It’s a valuable thing, that tranquility.
This summer my young son sat in my lap late at night, watching shooting stars against an already unbelievably starry sky. Loons cried out all around us. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves on the birch trees above us and caused the lake to lap against our rocky shore.
Only by driving a long way north, and then canoeing on a designated wilderness lake, and camping on a designated wilderness island in that lake, were we able to find such peace and quiet. No one else was anywhere around us. We were totally alone, with our camp fires, firewood chores, fishing rods, and deep sleeps in the cold tent.
These are memories likely to make my son smile even as he ages and grapples with responsibilities and challenges of adulthood. We couldn’t do it without wilderness.
Wilderness is a touchstone for a frontier nation like America. Wilderness equals freedom of movement, freedom of action. The same sort of freedoms that instigated insurrection against the British monarchy. American frontiersmen became accustomed to individual liberty unlike anything seen in Western Civilization. They enshrined those liberties in our Constitution.
Sure, there are some frustrations associated with managing wilderness.
Out West, wilderness designation has become a politicized fight over access to valuable minerals under the ground. Access usually involves roads, and roads are the antithesis of a wild experience.
Given the large amount of publicly owned land in the West, I cannot help but wonder if there isn’t some bartering that could go on to resolve these fights. Take multiple use public land and designate it as wilderness, so other areas can responsibly yield their valuable minerals. Plenty of present day public land was once heavily logged, farmed, ranched, and mined, but those scars are long gone.
You can hike all day in a Gold Mine Creek basin and find one tiny miner’s shack from 1902. All other signs have washed away, been covered up by new layers of soil, etc. So there is precedent for taking once-used land and letting it heal to the point where we visitors would swear it is pristine.
Out East, where we have large hardwood forests, occasionally, huge valuable timber falls over in wilderness areas, and the financially hard-pressed locals could surely use the income from retrieving, milling, and selling lumber from those trees. But wilderness rules usually require such behemoths to stay where they lay, symbols of an old forest rarely seen anywhere today. They can be seen as profligate waste, I understand that. I also understand that some now-rare salamanders might only make their homes under these rotting giant logs, and nowhere else.
Seeing the yellow-on-black body of the salamander makes me think of the starry night sky filled with shooting stars. A rare thing of beauty in a world full of bustle, noise, voices, and concrete. For me, I’ll take the salamander.
Oklahoma may be our heartland, full of normal, hard working Americans, but it is also home to a mosque. And home to a Muslim guy named Alton Nolen from that mosque.
Shouting Muslim battle cries and Islamic supremacy slogans, Nolen cut the head off a nice, innocent lady named Colleen Hufford, who worked with him. Maybe she was one of his co-workers who resisted his efforts to convert them to Islam.
Nolen was stopped in his attempt to behead a second woman only because an employee there had a concealed gun, and shot Nolen. Yet another lesson here, for those wishing to learn from it.
Finding photos of Nolen is easy. Finding photos of Hufford has been impossible. There may be a race issue here, which the mainstream media would naturally suppress if it runs counter to their false narrative a la Ferguson, MO.
Fascinating to see Oklahoma churches issue a statement that this act was not representative of Islam, on the same day an official press event was held at which dozens of local Muslims reportedly read from the Koran, shouted out Islamic supremacist slogans, and laughed. A photo of that event shows a throng of people, many wearing Muslim pajamas, circling the event participants. A couple of tweets reportedly from the event are the basis of this description.
Fascinating to see some law enforcement officials say this beheading has nothing to do with Muslim terrorism. As if it could be associated with anything else, right?
Plenty of news out there on this, no need to re-hash it all here, but definitely a need to be a voice for sanity and honesty on this subject.
Islam, you’ve got a problem. Please fix it.
Back in the 1970s, I brought my deer rifle to school on the bus.
It was locked in my school locker when I arrived at school on the bus. In its case.
No one made a big deal about it.
No one was hurt by my gun.
My biology teacher reloaded my 7mm Mauser shells for me.
I hunted after school with friends, and no one was hurt. We were all safe handlers of our firearms. We all took it seriously.
It now might be a time for Americans to recall a different time, a safer time, a time when Americans could not imagine using basic firearms to hurt one another. A time when deer rifles were as normal as new sneakers, as significant as new clothes. A high powered deer rifle meant that much, and that little.
So many Americans today wonder what happened to our nation. Well, quit treating traditional American values as inferior to the chaos, anarchy, and violence that have replaced them. Let us traditionalists come back. Let your kids demonstrate how responsible they are. Take comfort in the inherent strength of our nation and its traditions. Relax.
We gun owners are safe, responsible, and experienced. We have our own children who we cherish. We will do nothing to hurt our own children.
Guns, used safely, are safe.
Today, a friend called me. A friend of his was bringing over some rifles, shotguns, and old knives to trade. Was I interested in participating?
I’m reporting here that we traded guns like pennies in a penny-ante poker game.
It’s an American tradition, this private gun ownership thing. No paperwork. No records. No criminals. No bad intent.
For another buddy of mine I got a lightly used pump deer rifle. He will pay my actual cost; I don’t make money off of friends.
Background checks have been proposed on this harmless activity; they would merely document who got what, for future attempts at gun confiscation. None of us are or will be criminals. Guns in our hands are the highest deterrent to crime, however.
Like a few thousand other attendees at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce dinner tonight, I sat in the audience and watched Governor Tom Corbett and Democrat nominee Tom Wolf debate each other, with reporter Dennis Owens moderating. Dennis was outstanding. I also stayed for the Tom Brokaw speech afterwards.
Here are the highlights as I see them:
1) Corbett beat Wolf hands-down, in substance, poise, accuracy, and humility. And damned if I am not still surprised. Given how insipid the Corbett campaign has been to date, I expected the worst performance from him tonight. That did not materialize.
2) While overall the debate was Dull vs Duller, and neither man was exciting or inspiring, the amazing fact is that Tom Corbett found his voice tonight. Tom Wolf talked in circles, kept stating that he is a businessman (six, seven times), mis-spoke (“the vast majority of married Pennsylvanians file separate tax reports”), spoke in vague generalities bordering on fluffy clouds and flying unicorns, and addressed none of the substantive issues pegged by moderator Dennis Owens or by Corbett.
3) Wolf seemed to play it safe, venturing nothing new, nothing specific. He did not even respond the to the Delaware Loophole questions posed to him. He simply ignored them. If he persists in this evasiveness, Corbett can catch up and beat him. Voters can now see it, and it ain’t pretty. Corbett may be The Most Boring Man in the World, but Wolf looked completely unprepared to be governor.
4) Wolf’s “I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it” response to policy and finance questions is not acceptable for a candidate to run a state government.
5) Corbett actually ate some humble pie, admitting that he is not a good communicator. Understatement, yes, but he is not a guy who likes to admit he’s wrong. So that was big. Again, expectations for Corbett were super low, and he started out looking and sounding defeated. But even he recognized that he was beating Wolf, and his performance picked up as the debate went on.
1) Ancient establishment reporter Tom Brokaw has a great voice, and lots of stage presence. He’s good looking for a guy that old. He wrote a book about The Greatest Generation, so he must be a pretty great guy. That is the marketing, anyhow. His ideas run the gamut from standard liberal to downright contradictory and mutually-exclusive confused, to pathetic control freak.
2) Although Brokaw started talking about the Tea Party, and he complimented its members for getting involved in the political process (which he said is necessary), he never said or recognized the American Constitution as core to tea party’s goals, values, principles, or guiding role. So although he talked about it, it didn’t seem evident that he understands or has thought about the Tea Party much.
3) Brokaw said “I leave it to you determine if the Tea Party is good for America. I’m just a reporter, I just report the facts. You have to come to your own conclusions.” As if he was not passing judgment on the Tea Party. Yet, he asked the question and obviously thinks the Tea Party is bad for America; that is his hint. Given that Brokaw is a liberal at war with America, this is a big cue to conservative activists: Keep it up, the liberal media establishment is scared of you.
4) He called for “filtration” and a “filter” of the internet, and talked about the “simple people” who manage his Montana ranch and get news from the Internet, which he disavowed and sees as unworthy. This is the kind of intellectual region where Brokaw makes no sense. On the one hand, the big establishment media is all over the Internet, so if people get their news from the Internet, and not TV chatterheads or fishwrap newspapers, then there’s no real problem with the Internet as a news source. What Brokaw seemed to be challenged by is the fact that Breitbart and citizen reporters (think Watchdogwire, or my own blog) are circumventing the establishment media. He does not understand or care that the ‘simple’ masses are hungry for unfiltered news, for real news, for facts and not liberal agenda. How his imagined filters jibe, square, or conflict with the First Amendment was not mentioned; I am unsure it even occurred to Brokaw that purposefully filtering information is censorship. But he is a guy who believes in sixty years of past liberal censorship, so I guess he has to stay consistent today.
5) Brokaw implied that the establishment media are the source of accurate information and “big ideas,” and that alternative news and opinion sources are not. He said he doesn’t believe what he reads on the internet. He is clearly bothered there’s now no difference between establishment media and bloggers and citizen reporters in terms of equal accessibility. He’s having a tough time letting go of controlling the message Americans receive, which is really his objection: Liberal media elites are losing the propaganda war because they no longer have a choke hold on the information flow; ergo, the Internet is full of bad information.
An indication of just how undeveloped his thinking is: Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon…for Liberals, Nixon was the High Priest of Done Bad in Government. It does not seem to occur to Brokaw that Nixon’s crimes pale in comparison to the lawless tyranny Obama has inflicted upon American citizens. E.g. NSA spying and IRS crushing of political dissent.
6) On the other hand, he’s into high tech and the future of technology. Very impressed by Google staff and all of the “big minds” gathered at tech conventions. Brokaw doesn’t reconcile his adulation with his view of information flow on the net. I am guessing here that he’d be OK if Google ran all the news on the Internet, because Google is made of liberals who share his political agenda. “Good” liberals and “bad” conservatives is what he is after.
7) Annoyingly, Brokaw dropped names all over the place, as if to impress us with how important he is: Jon Stewart, the NFL commissioner, et al. “I was emailing with ____ _____, and he says ‘Tom..’.” “My books.” “I’m on the board of…..” This seemed self-conscious and actually undermined his standing, because truly great people never look at themselves this way. They simply Are Great.
8) Finally, he called for a new form of foreign service corps, some hybrid of the Peace Corps, Americorps, and the military. It was terribly confused, but it was also the kind of Big Idea he admires others for having, so evidently he must have one, too, even of it makes no practical sense.
Obama & Bill Clinton officially embrace imperialism, then poormouth liberty, independence, and freedom
As anyone paying any attention to politics already knew, neither Barack Hussein Obama nor Bill Clinton are committed to liberty, freedom, or independence, and like the good power-hungry statists they are, they openly embrace imperialism and military occupation. When it serves their interests.
Today the mainstream media prominently ran two statements, one by each man.
Each statement began with a dissembling lie about how neither Obama nor Clinton really have anything to say about Scotland’s wish for independence from the mis-named “United Kingdom.”
You know, kind of a disarming warmup for the dagger-in-the-chest that is coming right behind it.
You know, they support the “united Kingdom” that was only united through Britain’s imperialism, deceptive diplomacy, military conquests, occupation, land theft, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and religious totalitarianism.
After the blase disclaimer, each man then goes on to say that Scotland should not become independent from its longtime foe, occupier, and vampire-like neighbor, England aka Britain, home of the Britons (not the Scots).
Both Clinton and Obama provide generic and vague sentimentalist goo as their supporting argument. Both rely on some version of “We know you don’t like it, but it really is best for you, the little people.”
See, Scotland owns a lot of oil and gas fields that will instantly give it financial independence from Britain, which in turn may become the weak sister, not the domineering exporter of bad TV and cute Cockney accents it is now.
I vote for freedom for Scotland. I vote for independence from Britain, like we Americans have. I vote for liberty from Britain’s insane laws that have turned justice upside down.
If anyone from Scotland reads this, please know that we Americans love our independence from the damned British, and we hope you do, too.
People obsessed with power can be aggravating. It’s all about them, not you or me. Their motives are bad, why support them.
So here I’m watching US Senator Tom Harkin’s (D- Iowa) annual steak fry fundraiser on c-span (yes, I am that much of a political geek), a legendary annual speechathon, and who is there right behind the filibustering Senator Harkin?
Why, Bill and Hillary Clinton are sitting there. Right in line with the cameras, for maximum exposure.
Bill Clinton is smiling and looking intently, or maybe intensely, occasionally smiling to someone in the audience (hot babe?), clapping, waving, nodding in agreement. Jovial fellow. Harmless, chummy.
Bill Clinton was impeached and disbarred for lying under oath, while holding the highest office. He was investigated because he abused his position of authority over a young woman working for him, basically blackmailing her for sex. He is a serial sexual harasser and sexual abuser, a possible rapist, and yet, he sits center stage, national attention, people cheering for him.
It makes you wonder just what counts for a leader for some parties. How people can set aside murder, drunkenness, and sexual abuse (Ted Kennedy), and so on. It makes me wonder, anyhow, what it takes to be a thinker in that party, what it takes to be an adherent to that party. Easily overlooking horrendous behavior, but quick to jump on someone else’s.
Consistency is not a hallmark.
Anyhow, Hillary eventually stands up and delivers the most monotone, long, drawn out, boring speech to a crowd sitting in the very hot sun already for hours at that point, and the camera shows the audience losing interest, feeling uncomfortable, getting up to move away. She is not speaking to them, because if she were, she would make it five or six minutes and get credit for getting them out of the hot sun already. However, Hillary is speaking to someone else, someplace else, and she goes on and on and on and even I couldn’t listen an more, and I was in the comfort of my recliner.
Hillary is speaking for herself, and probably to herself.
It is time to hold the Clintons accountable, for what they did to Bill’s many victims, for they did to America.
And yes, it is a shame that Bill was so flawed; I mean that. I was working in Washington, DC, when he became president, and the government really did change for the better under his leadership. I am not talking about policy, but how government functioned, how it was streamlined, how voice mail and email were added to our offices, and the Internet. Bill Clinton was a gifted president in that way. His lack of morals were his weak point.
But Hillary has no excuse, no good, demonstrable benefits she has brought to America. She is merely deeply self-interested. She is merely power hungry. She has stepped over the many prostrate female victims of Bill to get to this point. She should not get any further. She is not a good person, and she is unworthy to lead.