Earlier today I received an email from Jonathan Ingram at the Illinois Policy Institute that I wish to share. The email is regarding the sorry state of Illinois Pensions.

Dear Mish

Illinois has a long history of fake reforms – legislative proposals that promise to solve the great policy challenges of the day when passed, but never actually accomplish these goals and often make problems worse.

In the mid-1990s, Illinois lawmakers were facing a serious problem: the unfunded liability of the state’s five public pension systems had reached $20 billion.

As a way to combat this growing problem, the state created a repayment schedule, often called the “pension ramp.”

The pension ramp, which was passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed into law by former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, promised to reach 90% funding levels by 2045.

According to the repayment schedule, the five systems should be nearly 57% funded today. Instead, the systems are just 39% funded and the state’s pension debt has grown to $95 billion.

What happened?

You’ll often hear that the pension debt was caused by the state “skipping pension payments.” What you won’t hear is that taxpayers have actually paid $8 billion more than the original ramp projected.

How can the five pension systems be just 39% funded?

The systems simply weren’t able to get the kinds of returns they promised and the underlying actuarial assumptions didn’t reflect reality.

These are problems with the underlying structure of Illinois’ pension plans. The defined-benefit structure guarantees that a large share of the actual costs will be hidden and largely unknown until the systems come back to taxpayers asking for more money to make up for poor returns and mistaken assumptions.

This creates massive uncertainty for future budgets. For example, the state’s fiscal year 2014 pension contribution was originally projected to be $3.7 billion. The actual contribution for fiscal year 2014 will be $6.8 billion. That’s nearly twice what was predicted.

That’s why we need a government retirement system that is reliable for workers, but still affordable for taxpayers.

We must freeze all of the defined benefits workers have already earned and move to a defined-contribution plan for all future work, similar to the 401(k) plans available in the private sector and the 401(a) plans already offered to many state university workers.

Illinois has the worst-funded pension system in the nation. The only way to move toward those solutions is to get politicians out of the retirement business altogether and give employees real control over their retirement savings.

Jonathan Ingram
Director of Health Policy and Pension Reform

While Illinois burns, Moody’s threatens next downgrade

Ingram is of course preaching to the choir, and I don’t object one bit. It’s important for Illinois citizens to be informed about the pathetic state of Illinois finances.

Please consider another look at the sorry state of affairs in Illinois, by Ted Dabrowski at the Illinois Policy Institute: While Illinois burns, Moody’s threatens next downgrade.

It’s no secret that Illinois has the worst-funded state pension systems in the nation. That’s an accepted fact by those on both sides of the aisle. Unfortunately, that fact hasn’t motivated any action from the state’s politicians.

Now recent news point to even deeper troubles for the state. Moody’s Investor Services has threatened to punish Illinois again with another credit downgrade by revising the state’s outlook to “negative” from “stable”. The agency already gave Illinois the nation’s worst credit rating, an A2, in January 2012 – and things look to get worse.

What’s ironic is that as the situation worsened during the past year, Springfield’s lack of action became increasingly more obvious. Moody’s called out this fact, saying: “The state repeatedly failed to act on pension reform – during the regular session that ended May 31, during a one-day special session convened by the governor on Aug. 17, and again during the state’s ‘veto sessions’ in November and December.”

A growing problem

A recent release by the Illinois Policy Institute shows the true extent of the crisis in Illinois. Politicians often talk about Illinois’ official funding shortfall, now equal to $96 billion. But when the state’s liabilities are measured under new accounting and transparency rules proposed by Moody’s, Illinois’ pension shortfall exceeds $209 billion.

The state also has $54 billion in unfunded liabilities for retiree health insurance and $15 billion in pension bonds that Gov. Pat Quinn and his immediate predecessor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, issued to avoid pension reform.

That debt now totals more than $275 billion — or $58,000 in debt for each and every household in Illinois.

Only 24% Funded

It’s becoming clear that the state’s pension systems are running out of time. Under new rules proposed by both Moody’s and the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, the five state pension systems have reached dangerously low levels of funding. Under Moody’s rules, the state’s overall funding levels are now just 24 percent. The Teachers’ Retirement System, or TRS, for downstate and suburban teachers is only 24-percent funded and among the worst-funded systems in the nation. One major stock market correction and that fund will be effectively insolvent.

Those findings only confirm what Dick Ingram, head of the TRS, said in February: Without reforms, TRS may be insolvent by 2029.

TRS Insolvency on the Way

Dick Ingram, head of the TRS (not to be confused with Jonathan Ingram at the Illinois Policy Institute) is an optimist.

Without reforms, TRS is highly likely to be insolvent far sooner than 2029. In fact, I think TRS is insolvent now.

Pension plan assumptions regarding expected rates-of-return are preposterous, most likely because they have to be. All it will take to wipe the entire plan out is another big decline in asset prices, and that is something I am confident is coming (time unknown).

If you wish to be better informed about the sorry state of affairs in Illinois and nationally, please sign up for Jonathan Ingram’s Health Policy and Pension Newsletter email list

Mike “Mish” Shedlock