This month, the National Public Pension Coalition (NPPC) celebrates its 11th anniversary of fighting for the retirement security of working families. We have seen some great victories and some painful defeats in the fight to protect pensions. The past eleven years include the Great Recession and its aftermath when public pensions took a financial hit and were subject to vicious political attacks. On this anniversary of our founding, we are looking back, but also looking ahead to the future fights over retirement security.
One of the first state fights for NPPC was in Alaska. In 2005, the Alaska legislature passed and former Gov. Frank Murkowski signed legislation to close the state’s two large public pension plans, the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and Teachers Retirement System (TRS). Beginning July 1, 2006, all new public employees in Alaska were placed in a 401(k)-style, defined contribution plan. This preceded NPPC’s founding by a year and one of the first campaigns we joined was to reopen the closed pension plans. What is particularly concerning for public employees in Alaska is that they do not participate in Social Security, so workers in the defined contribution plan have no source of guaranteed income in retirement. Closing the pension plans has also made it very difficult for Alaska to recruit new state troopers and police officers, leaving dozens, if not hundreds, of vacancies across the state.
Thirteen years after the legislation was passed, Alaska’s public pension plans remain closed to new employees, but efforts continue to reopen the plans. In March 2017, the Alaska House of Representatives held a hearing on HB 83, a bill that would reopen the pension plans and give participants in the defined contribution plan the option to switch plans.
NPPC was founded just before the financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession. The financial crisis dealt a serious blow to all investors, both individuals saving in their 401(k)s and institutional investors, such as public pension plans. Experts estimate that the average investor lost 25 percent of the value of all assets during the crisis. This is a serious loss, but public pension plans have time to recover the value of their assets because they can invest on an infinite time horizon. Individuals saving in a 401(k) are not so fortunate though. With less time to recover and no pooled risk sharing, many individual 401(k) savers were forced to either delay retirement or accept a lower standard of living in retirement.
To give an example of how pension plans can recover, last week the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System reported that it earned 7.97 percent in the most recent fiscal year, exceeding its assumed rate of return of 7 percent. The plan’s ten year returns, which still includes the financial crisis, was 6.84 percent, short of its assumed rate of return of 7.4 percent. However, the plan’s 30 year returns, a number that really matters for a public pension fund, was 8.72 percent, well above the assumed return of 7.25 percent. What this shows is that the doomsayers who claimed the sky was falling on public pensions after the financial crisis were wrong. Given enough time, pension plans can recover from financial losses and pay benefits that are owed.
Despite all the pressures on pension plans following the financial crisis, states are sticking with public pensions. Only one plan in one state has switched from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan since the recession- and that switch followed a lengthy court battle. The city of Palm Beach, FL switched back to a defined benefit pension after a brief experiment with a hybrid-style retirement plan. The city of Webster Groves, MO switched from a defined contribution plan to a defined benefit pension after the recession. The state of Wisconsin has expanded access to pensions since the recession.
Unfortunately, anti-pension ideologues have not relented in their attacks on public pensions, which is why NPPC will continue to fight for retirement security for the next eleven years (and beyond). Just this week, the Pew Research Center, the Reason Foundation, and other John Arnold-funded groups are testifying before the Arkansas state legislature, attacking public pensions. This year’s midterm elections have the potential to bring significant change to governor’s mansions and state legislatures across the nation. We are closely following these campaigns and what the various outcomes could mean for fights over retirement security next year. As long as John Arnold and his cronies continue their vicious attacks on the retirement security of working families, we will be standing alongside those families fighting back.