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State and Local Pensions

What Now?

Alicia H. Munnell

Publication Year: 2012

In the wake of the financial crisis and Great Recession, the health of state and local pension plans has emerged as a front burner policy issue. Elected officials, academic experts, and the media alike have pointed to funding shortfalls with alarm, expressing concern that pension promises are unsustainable or will squeeze out other pressing government priorities. A few local governments have even filed for bankruptcy, with pensions cited as a major cause.

Alicia H. Munnell draws on both her practical experience and her research to provide a broad perspective on the challenge of state and local pensions. She shows that the story is big and complicated and cannot be viewed through a narrow prism such as accounting methods or the role of unions.

By examining the diversity of the public plan universe, Munnell debunks the notion that all plans are in trouble. In fact, she finds that while a few plans are basket cases, many are functioning reasonably well.

Munnell's analysis concludes that the plans in serious trouble need a major overhaul. But even the relatively healthy plans face three challenges ahead: an excessive concentration of plan assets in equities; the risk that steep benefit cuts for new hires will harm workforce quality; and the constraints plans face in adjusting future benefits for current employees. Here, Munnell proposes solutions that preserve the main strengths of state and local pensions while promoting needed reforms.

Published by: Brookings Institution Press

Front Cover

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p. 1-1

Inside Flap

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pp. 2-4

Title Page

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p. 5-5

Copyright Information

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p. 6-6

Table of Contents

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pp. v-8

Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction

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pp. 1-11

Vallejo, California (2008), Prichard, Alabama (2010), and Central Falls, Rhode Island (2011) have filed for bankruptcy, with commentators citing pension promises to public employees as a major cause (see box).1 A Googling of the words “state,” “pension,” and “crisis” found more than a twentyfold increase between 2000 and 2011 (see figure 1-1). The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) has promulgated new standards that could dramatically...

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State and Local Pensions: From the 1970s to Today

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pp. 12-47

This chapter has three purposes. The first is to explain how we got where we are today in terms of state and local pension finance. The second is to describe the current pension landscape and to introduce the Public Plans Database, which serves as the basis for much of the empirical material covered in subsequent chapters. The final purpose is to tip our hat to the other major component of retirement benefits for public sector employees—namely, retiree health...

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The Discount Rate and Other Accounting and Funding Issues

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pp. 48-74

It is widely agreed that each generation of taxpayers should pay the full cost of the public services it elects to receive. And taxpayers need to know the total compensation paid to public employees in order to evaluate whether the government has been a good steward of their resources. If a worker’s compensation includes a defined benefit pension, the cost of the benefit earned each year should be recognized at the time the worker performs his or her job, not when...

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Why Are Some Plans in Trouble and Others Not?

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pp. 75-104

The discussion in chapter 3 progressed as if state and local plans were one homogeneous whole. As discussed earlier, nothing could be further from the truth. Plans vary within states; plans for teachers and general employees are very different from plans for police and fire personnel. Plans administered at the state level have different financing structures than those administered by localities. And plans of similar types vary enormously from state to state. That is, the plan for general employees in California costs more than twice as much as...

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Are Public Plans Budget Busters?

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pp. 105-138

While the previous chapter explored the state of funding among state and local plans, this chapter looks at current and future pension expense as a share of state and local budgets. The important question for policymakers is whether spending on pensions will squeeze out other priorities. Such a squeeze could result from the need to compensate for past shortfalls in the case...

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Are Public Emplyees Overpaid or Underpaid?

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pp. 139-169

The previous chapters focused on one component of compensation for state and local workers—namely, pensions. They explored the extent to which government employers had put aside money for future benefits and the extent to which shortfalls will require future contributions that squeeze out other priorities. The discussion showed that funded levels have declined sharply in the wake of the financial crisis and that the recession decimated state...

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Do Defined Contribution Plans Have a Role in the Public Sector?

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pp. 170-209

The financial crisis and its aftermath generated two types of responses from sponsors of state and local government pensions. The first was to cut back on existing defined benefit plan commitments by raising employee contributions, reducing benefits for new employees, and in some cases suspending the cost-of-living adjustment for existing retirees. The second response was to initiate proposals to shift some or all of the pension system from a defined...

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Making State and Local Pensions Better

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pp. 210-230

This chapter looks to the future. The first section recaps the main findings of this book to provide context for discussing the major challenges facing sponsors of state and local pensions going forward. The key point is that while a few bad actors exist, many public plans are functioning well, create little risk to the state or local sponsor, and offer benefits that, together with cash wages, provide total compensation comparable to that in the private sector. The second section then...

References

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pp. 231-248

Index

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pp. 249-254

Back Cover

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p. 266-266


E-ISBN-13: 9780815724131
E-ISBN-10: 0815724136
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815724124
Print-ISBN-10: 0815724128

Page Count: 254
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • State governments -- Officials and employees -- Pensions -- United States.
  • Local officials and employees -- Pensions -- United States.
  • State governments -- Officials and employees -- Pensions -- Law and legislation -- United States.
  • Local officials and employees -- Pensions -- Law and legislation -- United States.
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