In the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession and facing pressure from anti-pension ideologues, a number of cities and states passed harmful changes to public pensions. Now those cities and states are beginning to face the consequences of these changes. One prime example of this is Utah, which gutted its pension plan for police officers and firefighters and has faced a severe staffing shortage ever since.
The Utah pension changes were the brainchild of former state senator Dan Liljenquist. He is more than just a former one-term state senator. Liljenquist serves as a board member for both the Retirement Security Initiative and the newly founded Equable Institute, which features many of the same rogues’ gallery as board members. Liljenquist is the ultimate one-trick pony. He served less than one term in the Utah state senate and used that brief time in public service to push through these harmful pension changes that hurt public safety in the state. After his single, partial term in office, he took his anti-pension show on the road and has been traveling around the country promoting the same failed anti-pension policies that he pushed through in Utah.
The Utah pension changes were passed in 2010 and took effect in 2011. In the years since, the state has struggled to keep public safety positions filled. It was reported in June 2018 that there were 600 vacant police positions across the state. This comes at a time when Utah’s population is growing and the need for more police officers is increasing. More recently, it was reported that nearly 60 percent of the police officers who have joined the force since the pension program was changed have left the job.
During this year’s legislative session, Senator Wayne Harper has introduced a bill to restore the pension program for public safety professionals. That bill passed out of committee earlier this week. While it still must pass the state Senate and House, it received near unanimous support in committee. Even if Senator Harper’s bill passes this year, police officers in Utah would still receive a lower benefit than police officers do in five neighboring states. Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and Wyoming all offer more secure retirements to their police officers than Utah, even if it were to restore its previous pension program. Under the current Utah police pension program, officers only receive about half of the pension benefit that their peers in neighboring states receive. This hurts the ability of Utah to recruit and retain qualified police officers.
Utah’s experience shows the harm that results from the anti-pension changes pushed by Dan Liljenquist and others like him. As the National Institute on Retirement Security documented in their study of Palm Beach, FL, which passed anti-pension changes in 2012, these changes have real, negative impacts on public safety. With public pension funding levels continuing to improve year after year, perhaps more legislators will begin to realize that folks like Liljenquist are just snake oil salesmen peddling a false narrative about public pensions.