The highly touted Illinois plan to fix its pension system is largely hot air. I was waiting for details to prove just that and they came out today. Let’s flashback to the initial claim.

A headline from six days ago reads Illinois lawmakers approve fix for $100b pension crisis

The Illinois Legislature approved a historic plan Tuesday to eliminate the state’s $100 billion pension shortfall, a vote that proponents described as critical to repairing the state’s deeply troubled finances but that faces the immediate threat of a legal challenge from labor unions.

The measure approved Tuesday emerged last week following negotiations by a bipartisan pension conference committee and then meetings of Illinois’ legislative leaders. They say it will save the state $160 billion over 30 years and fully fund the systems by 2044.

It would push back the retirement age for workers ages 45 and younger, on a sliding scale. The annual 3 percent cost-of-living increases for retirees would be replaced with a system that only provides the increases on a portion of benefits, based on how many years a beneficiary was in their job. Some workers would have the option of freezing their pension and starting a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan.

Workers will contribute 1 percent less to their own retirement under the plan. Legislative leaders say they included that provision, as well as language that says the retirement systems may sue the state if it does not make its annual payments, in hopes of boosting the measure’s odds of surviving the unions’ anticipated court challenge.

Actuarially Unsound

Unions are opposed to the plan, as always, and will file lawsuits, as always. But the plan does not even work.

Via email, Jonathan Ingram, at the Illinois Policy Institute explains…

House Speaker Mike Madigan and proponents of the temporary pension “fix” enacted last week promised taxpayers that it would immediately reduce the state’s unfunded pension liability by about $20 billion. But despite these promises, the credit rating agencies have indicated that they would be waiting for actuarial analyses before making any decisions on how the new law will affect Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation credit rating.

They’re wise to wait. It turns out that somewhere between $6 billion and $8 billion of Madigan’s promised reduction is solely the result of accounting gimmicks.

Part of the “fix” Madigan’s bill offers is to eventually move to what’s called the “Entry Age Normal” cost method for calculating how much the state should be contributing to pensions each year. That’s actually a good idea. This new accounting method helps make the pension ramp a little less steep. It’s also required by the new pension accounting rules promulgated by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.

But here’s the problem: switching to this new accounting method actually increases the state’s unfunded liability by approximately $6 billion to $8 billion in the short term, because it attempts to spread the costs over the course of employees’ careers, rather than having them backloaded like we do now.

So how do you make up for that increase when you’re trying to reduce the state’s unfunded liability? Do you incorporate more comprehensive reforms to get that debt under control? Not if you’re Madigan.

Instead of addressing that increase, the pension bill simply delays implementing the accounting change until fiscal year 2016. This means that the state gets to pretend that at least $6 billion to $8 billion of the pension debt simply doesn’t exist for now. But when the new rules take effect in 2016, that pension debt is added back to the books. Instead of cutting $20 billion off the unfunded liability as promised, it looks like Madigan’s bill only really cuts $12 billion to $14 billion.

Actuaries for the state’s largest pension system recommended against delaying the new accounting rules. As they noted, the gimmick is being used to “maximize the amount of liability reduction,” even though 25% to 35% of that liability reduction will be added back to the pension debt in just a few years.

The rating agencies have already begun cracking down on state and local governments for using gimmicks to paper over their true pension debt.

Are lawmakers seriously hoping they’ll overlook this one, especially when our own actuaries are highlighting it?

Pension Fight Could Create Deeper Hole

The Washington Post reports Ill. pension fight could create deeper fiscal hole

With the fight over solving Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension shortfall now headed to the courts, the financially troubled state faces a grim possibility: The plan could be tossed, and Illinois could wind up in an even deeper fiscal hole than the one it’s in now.

Legislative leaders, anticipating a legal challenge from public-employee unions once the landmark bill approved Tuesday is signed, went extra lengths to bolster the law’s odds in the courtroom — including an unusual three-page preamble to the legislation in which they lay out their case for cutting worker and retiree benefits.

But legal experts say those efforts could mean little in a state that provides some of the country’s stronger constitutional protections of pension benefits.

They point to Arizona as a possible warning sign. In 2012, a judge there said a law raising the employee contribution to pension benefits was illegal, and ordered the state to repay the money to workers — with interest.

Illinois, Michigan and Arizona are among the seven states that have clauses in their state constitutions that protect pension benefits, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. The others are Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana and New York.

Illinois and New York’s protections are considered to the strongest, however, because the language expressly states that it applies to current and future benefits.

A coalition of labor unions known as We Are One Illinois stated immediately after the bill passed that it will sue if Gov. Pat Quinn signs it, which the Chicago Democrat is expected to do as early as this week.

Quinn said he believes the legislation is constitutional and will ultimately be upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court.

“It is necessary for the economic good for the people of our state, and I think the court will see it that way,” he said.

Economic Good of the State

If Governor Quinn really wants to do something for the “economic good of the state” he can start by signing legislation that would …

  1. End collective bargaining rights for Illinois public unions.
  2. Make Illinois a right-to-work state.
  3. Scrap prevailing wage laws.
  4. End defined benefit pension plans going forward.
  5. Lower taxes for the average citizen.
  6. Hike taxes on public union pension payments enough to make the system sound.

Plan Worth Fighting For

As long as there is going to be a court battle with the unions, you may as well go to court over a plan that will actually fix the system.

Illinois should figure pension liabilities at a reasonable rate of return, say the 30-year treasury rate. That would make the plan underfunding look far worse today, but so be it. The idea is sound.

Then after barring new entrants into the scheme, the state should hike taxes on pension recipients enough to make the system fully funded with no additional taxes on regular taxpayers.

I propose something along the lines of “taxing pension benefits above a specified amount at 80%, taken straight out of the check”. The “specified amount” would be determined based on what it takes to make the system actuarially sound in a reasonable timeframe (say 15 years).

If you going to have a fight, make it a fight worthwhile.

As always, it’s best to have a plan B. I propose a simple one: default on pension obligations above a certain level, but pay all other state obligations early to avoid bond market disruptions.

Public Unions Should Bear the Brunt of the Pain

Public unions (in conjunctions with pandering politicians) wrecked Detroit, and numerous cities in California and other states. Together they wrecked Illinois.

It’s perfectly fair for unions to bear the brunt of the pain in working out a solution.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock