Tomorrow, November 6th, is Election Day! This election is one of the most significant in years. Not only are 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives up for election, but 35 U.S. Senate seats, and 35 U.S. governor’s mansions are up for grabs. Additionally, numerous state legislative seats and many local races around the country are on the ballot. How will these elections affect public pensions? More than you think. Let’s take a look at the top rated governor races from across the country that could have either a positive or negative impact on public employees’ pensions. Also, for full election results, check out the links to state election results pages.
Incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown has been supportive of Oregon Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and has sought innovative ways to pay down the unfunded liability in the system. Her opponent in the gubernatorial election, Republican State Representative Knute Buehler, vocally advocates for converting PERS into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan. Experiences from other states that have made these types of changes in the past show that closing a pension plan and forcing new employees into a 401(k)-style plan increases costs for the government and taxpayers.
Incumbent Republican Governor Kim Reynolds became governor following the resignation of former Governor Terry Branstad, who became the U.S. Ambassador to China. She faces Democratic nominee Fred Hubbell, a businessman, in the general election. Like Oregon, Iowa has a strong statewide public pension system, the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS). IPERS and its funding are less contentious political issues in Iowa than OPERS is in Oregon. Nevertheless, many public employees and retirees fear that if Gov. Reynolds is elected to her first full term, she will seek to gut IPERS and force public employees into a 401(k)-style plan. This type of plan change would be disastrous for public employees and Iowa taxpayers.
This year’s gubernatorial election will be contested among Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Democratic State Senator Laura Kelly, and independent businessman Greg Orman, who was a major candidate for U.S. Senate in 2014. Kobach defeated the incumbent governor Jeff Colyer, who succeeded Brownback, in the Republican primary. If Kobach wins the gubernatorial election, KPERS would be threatened once again. Kobach supports returning to the failed Brownback tax cuts. The resulting blow to state revenues would imperil KPERS funding, just as it did before.
The contest in Colorado is between Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Democratic U.S. Representative Jared Polis. Stapleton has made opposition to PERA, Colorado’s statewide public pension system, a signature issue of his campaign. He promotes radical changes to PERA that would shift the burden onto working families. He also wants to force more public employees into a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan, which would be particularly harmful in a state where most public employees do not participate in Social Security.
The Georgia gubernatorial contest might feature two candidates with the most distinct ideological positions. Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams is the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and would be the first black woman elected governor of any state if she wins. Republican nominee Brian Kemp is the Georgia Secretary of State. Public pensions have not been a major issue in the campaign, but anti-pension ideologues like the Reason Foundation are beginning to lay the groundwork for an attack on pensions in Georgia. If Abrams prevails, she has promised to protect pensions for teachers and other public employees.
Public pensions in Michigan have been under attack for more than two decades now. In 1997, Michigan closed its pension plan for state workers — a move that increased costs for taxpayers and gutted retirement security for public employees. During the past decade, the state has slowly chipped away at the pension plan for teachers. Following legislation passed in 2017, new school employees in Michigan now have a choice between a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan and a hybrid defined benefit-defined contribution plan that is less generous than the hybrid plan that preceded it.
Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer, the former minority leader of the state senate, is expected to defeat Republican nominee and current state Attorney General Bill Schuette. If Whitmer prevails in the gubernatorial election, it will be worth watching to see if she advocates for any legislation to improve pension benefits for public employees in the state.
Incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker has won two previous gubernatorial elections and survived a contentious recall election. This year he is running for a third term against State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, the Democratic nominee. Despite his open hostility to public employees and attacks upon their collective bargaining rights, Gov. Walker has largely left alone the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS), the fully funded statewide pension plan. WRS’s success as a plan has largely protected it from political attack. Gov. Walker even touted the health of the plan during his brief presidential campaign in 2016. While Gov. Walker has given no indication that he would seek to make harmful changes to WRS if he wins a third term, many Wisconsin public employees would likely sleep easier if their chief antagonist is no longer in office, where he could threaten their retirement security.