Proposals in the Kansas budget for fiscal year 2018 are more evidence of why defined-benefit pension plans are incompatible with the public sector.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has proposed delays in funding KPERS, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. The delays are in both directions. The state intends to break a past promise to pay, and also to skip some future payments.
A memo from KPERS summarizes recent history and the proposed changes: “Last fiscal year, the State delayed its fourth quarter payment for School employer contributions with a promise to pay it in Fiscal Year 2018 with interest. The Governor is recommending the State not pay this contribution and skip one quarterly payment each year through FY19. In addition, the Governor recommends extending the time to pay down KPERS’ existing unfunded actuarial liability by 10 years.”1
Many will criticize the proposed reduction in funding KPERS as stealing from KPERS. That really isn’t true. KPERS has plenty of money to pay current retirees their promised benefits. The above memo also says that those near retirement won’t be affected.
But what about younger employees who may not retire for 20 or 30 years? Will they receive their promised benefits?
The answer is yes, almost certainly. Their retirement benefits are in the form of a contract, and it is very unlikely that the state will break those contracts.
So: Is KPERS being robbed? Stolen from?
No. It’s future Kansas taxpayers who will be mugged. They will have to pay the unfunded liabilities accumulated by not only the current governor and legislature, but by past governors and legislatures too. I explain in more detail in my recent article No one is stealing* from KPERS. (The asterisk notes that there is stealing in a way, but from future taxpayers.)
Further: It is entirely foreseeable that this is happening. In 2015 the state issued $1 billion in bonds to address a portion of the KPERS unfunded liability. This made the unfunded liability ratio look better, and the governor and Republicans continually boast of this. But debt has simply been shifted from one balance sheet to another. The same taxpayers that will eventually pay.
This is one of the reasons why government should not offer defined-benefit pension plans. Because of the long time horizons involved, it’s easy to delay and postpone dealing with problems. Or, legislators are prone to make risky investment decisions as Kansas did in 2015 by $1 billion in bonds and transferring the proceeds to KPERS. This was — is — a risky maneuver, and it has led to undesirable behavior that was entirely predictable.
The plan was that the state would borrow $1 billion, and invest it. If the state earned more in investment returns than the interest cost on the bonds, the state wins. Barry Poulson, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor at the University of Colorado — Boulder has written on the danger of borrowing to shore up state pension funds, as Kansas has done. He explained there is the “lack of nexus between the investment of the bond proceeds and payments for unfunded liabilities in the plan.” This means that the borrowed funds may be used for current spending rather than for correcting the KPERS unfunded liability.2
Paulson explains: “If legislators see that additional funds are available to pay off unfunded liabilities in the pension plan they may choose to allocate less general fund money to meet these pension obligations.” What Poulson warned of happened in Kansas in 2016. Now, the governor proposes even more: Pushing off KPERS contributions to the future so that more money is available for spending on other stuff now.
In a way, it’s surprising that groups who advocate for public employees are upset with this. (See, for example, here from KNEA.) Instead, they should be grateful. KPERS benefits are unlikely to be cut for any retirees. But underfunding KPERS today means there is more money available for public employees and the agencies that employ them. In reality, these groups simply want higher taxes now.