Pension Mismanagement and the Role of Return on Investment

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Teachers make great scapegoats for legislators and a misinformed public, but once the propaganda is cleared away – it’s incumbent upon all of us to fairly consider the facts.

 

 

Often, we hear about skyrocketing costs to taxpayers caused by inflated public salaries, benefits, and pensions.  Let’s face it, if our legislators didn’t target teachers and other public employees for the Illinois Debt Crisis, they would have to take a scrutinizing look in the mirror.  Teachers make great scapegoats, but how about we consider the facts and make up our own minds about this issue.

 


The Problem

To do this, we need to travel back in “pension-funding time.”   Let’s start at the root cause that created the original 1995 $20B deficit in the state’s five public employee retirement systems:  the State Employee Retirement System (SERS), the Downstate Teachers’ Retirement Systems (TRS), the State Universities Retirement System (SURS), the Judges Retirement System (JRS), and the General Assembly Retirement System (GARS).

The reality behind this $20B shortfall is a structural deficit in Illinois taxing policy, “historically, the Illinois state fiscal system has failed to generate the revenue needed to cover both the inflationary increase in the cost of maintaining public services from year to year and the full employer contribution required to fund pensions. So, rather than cut services, the state usually chose to underfund its employer contribution. Over time, this chronic failure to make the full employer contribution is the primary reason for Illinois state government’s predicament today, facing the worst unfunded pension liability in the country,” (Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, CTBA).

Problem Number 1:  Illinois legislators did not plan for inflation.

To appropriately address inflation, the state had three options:

A.  Cut Services
B.  Increase revenue by raising income and/or sales tax
C.  Underfund State’s employer contribution

And what option did our legislators select?  Option C.

Anyone who has responsibly and consistently balanced a budget knows expenses must be equal to or less than revenue.  There are two basic ways of doing this:

A.  Revenue is equal to or less than Expenses
B.  Revenue plus Debt is equal to or less than Expenses

And what option did our legislators select to address the 1995 shortfall?  Yes, Option B.

Problem Number 2:  Illinois legislators exacerbated their $20B debt problem.

Anyone who has responsibly accessed credit knows borrowing to cover an expense is feasible ONLY when future expenses can be maintained, or reduced until the debt is covered.

For easy math, let’s suppose  I earn a monthly salary of $100 and my living expenses are $100; yet, my car had a flat and I had to put $25 on a credit card in order to purchase a new tire.

$100 monthly Revenue
-$100 monthly Expenses
$0 – Balanced Budget

Until:  Additional $25 Borrowed + $5 Interest ($30 Debt)

In order to pay for the debt I’ve created, I need to reduce my living expenses by $5 for 5 months in order to pay off the $25 of debt AND I must reduce living expenses by $5 for an additional month in order to pay interest on the $25 I borrowed.

Then:
$100 monthly Revenue (6 months)
-$95 monthly Expenses (6 months)
+  $5 payment on $ 25 Debt + $5 Interest (6 months)
$0 – Balanced Budget = repayment of $30 Debt

Unfortunately,  our legislators didn’t choose either of these reasonable options.  Their ‘fix’ looks more like the scenario below:

$100 monthly Revenue
$100 monthly Expenses
+  $1 payment on $25 Debt + $5 Interest
–  ($1 + $24 Debt + $6 Interest) =  $31 Debt

A responsible ‘fix’ would resemble the following scenario:

$100 monthly Revenue
$80-$90 monthly Expenses
+$10-$20 payment to Savings
$0 – Balanced Budget + Plenty of Money Left Over!

It should be public savings accumulating over time, not public debt.  It is these public savings that should be accessed in times of need or expansion – not public debt, which quite obviously serves the interests of the banking industry but certainly not those of the public!  It’s no wonder the banking industry contributes heavily to political campaigns.

Yes, this representation is simplistic, so let’s look at how our legislators addressed their shortfall.

 


Our Legislators’ Solution

Problem Number 3:  The Edgar Ramp Balloon Mortgage on Steroids

In 1996, the ‘fix’ came with a name, the Edgar Ramp.  The basic premise was to reduce pension payments at the plan’s onset and then steadily increase them over time.  Edgar’s plan didn’t structurally reform pensions; instead, it temporarily pushed the problem off and left the financial burden for later legislators to address.

 

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In 2015, the Illinois Debt Crisis reached approximately $109B (p 29, 2015 IL Comprehensive Annual Financial Report).

 

An article in Crain’s by Dave Mckinney argues,

“For more than a quarter-century, governors and state legislators, Republicans and Democrats alike, made a series of financially toxic moves in the pension systems for state employees and public school teachers. Proposals to fix the perennially underfunded pensions were based on botched calculations—or no calculations at all—and were driven by misguided rationales that weren’t fully vetted.”

Chan, a Chicago securities defense lawyer and former SEC administrator, describes the ramp as a “balloon mortgage on steroids.  You already know you have a hole. But instead of filling it, you decided to make it deeper.”

Problem Number 4:  Continuation of Flawed Tax System

Overspending on state services is not the cause of the state’s long-term fiscal problems. Rather, the driver has been Illinois’ flawed tax code, which does not comport with the modern economy (p3, CTBA).  Tax revenue hasn’t grown at a rate sufficient to cover the increased cost of delivering the same level of services from one year to the next (p4, IL 2015 CAFR).

  • 2011 – legislature voted to raise individual income tax rate from 3% to 5% and corporate income tax rate from 4.8% to 7%
  • 2015individual income tax rate dropped to 3.75% and corporate rate to 5.25%
  • 2025individual income taxes are scheduled to fall to 3.25% and corporate to 4.8%

Who benefits from these tax breaks … and who doesn’t (statistics from CTBA)?

  • Banks profit from public sector debt.
  • Approximately 54.4% of the dollar value of tax relief from the reduction in state’s personal income tax, over $2B of the $3.7B in total cuts, goes to the wealthiest 11.8% of tax filers in IL.
  • Millionaires do particularly well, receiving an average annual tax break of $36,797 per year – 70 times greater than workers having net taxable incomes of $35,000-$50,000 per year or less ($526).
  • Bottom 50% fare particularly poorly, receiving just 8.1% of the total tax break.

In 2011, Illinois had the lowest number of state workers per 1,000 residents of all 50 states.  Despite having the 5th largest population, Illinois annually ranks in the bottom 10 states in service spending.

 

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In 2014, over 4 of 5 taxpayer dollars paid as part of the state’s annual pension contribution went to paying down pension debt, not to funding current benefits.

 

CTBA (2009) ‘Debunks’ popular myths regarding the Illinois Debt Crisis:

MYTH:  Illinois has too many public employees.
REALITY:  Illinois actually ranks 49th among the states, next to last in the nation, in the number of state employees per capita. Historically, Illinois has not been a high public employee headcount state. Instead, Illinois is mostly a grant-making state – that is, rather than hire state employees to provide services; Illinois disburses grants to independent providers such as Lutheran Social Services or Catholic Charities, which in turn deliver the service to the public.

MYTH:  Public employee benefits are too generous.
REALITY:  For most Illinois public employees, their pension is all they receive upon retirement (this is true concerning teacher pensions) – fully 78% are not covered by and do not receive Social Security. This is unlike workers in the private sector, who receive both Social Security and private retirement benefits.

MYTH:  Illinois’ current defined benefit system is too expensive.
REALITY:  The ‘normal cost’ of a pension system is the contribution required from an employer to fund the plan’s benefits. The weighted average ‘normal cost’ across all five Illinois pension systems, as a percentage of active members’ payroll, averages 9.13%. The national average for state and local government is 12.5%, placing the normal cost of Illinois’ current defined benefit program far below the national average.

MYTH:  Switching Illinois from a defined benefit to defined contribution system will erase Illinois’ pension debt.

REALITY:  Switching to a defined contribution plan from a defined benefit plan cannot reduce or eliminate any of the unfunded pension liability that Illinois owes to its five public employee pension systems.

The stateʹs duty to maintain pension benefit levels for its public employees is directly mandated in the Illinois Constitution. Specifically, Article XIII, Section 5 of the Illinois Constitution provides, “Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired (emphasis supplied).”

Irrespective of the nature of the plans going forward – the only way to address the unfunded pension liability is to find a rational way to pay it. The problem cannot be legislated away. [Although legislators haven’t stopped trying, even after the IL Supreme Court ruled legislation as unconstitutional – discussions regarding the transfer of pension responsibility to the local level are currently taking place]

MYTH:  Placing new public sector employees into a defined contribution system would save the state money.
REALITY:  A switch to a defined contribution plan for new employees would not save the state of Illinois money. In fact, a switch to a defined contribution system would likely increase costs; defined contribution systems have significantly higher annual administrative costs than fully funded defined benefit systems.

According to the Investment Management Institute, the operating expense ratio for defined benefit plans averages 31 basis points (31 cents per $100 of assets); the average for defined contribution plans is three to six times higher, at 96 to 175 basis points.

To put that in context of the Illinois pension systems, the administrative costs of a defined contribution system would in all likelihood cost taxpayers anywhere from $275 to $610 million more annually than the state’s current defined benefit systems.

 


 

Compounding the Problem

Problem Number 5:  Decline of Returns on Investment (RoI)

Mitch Vogel, former President of the University Professionals of Illinois, IFT Local 4100, and former member of the State Universities Retirement System (SURS) Board of Trustees, explains, “When our pension funds were created, it was under the constitutionally-mandated assumption that the funding would come from a so-called ‘three-legged stool’:

1) the employee
2) the employer (the State of Illinois)
3) returns on investments made by duly-appointed pension boards”

He asserts, “When it comes to funding Illinois’ public pension systems, we have done our part.  Our elected officials have not, and they’re overwhelming to blame for the funding problems the systems face.”

He then points out, “Some experts have estimated that [pension] systems would be holding billions more in assets today if state lawmakers and City of Chicago officials hadn’t declared years of pension “holidays” which underfunded the system, at a time when the ROI was in double digits, no less. Had the required payments been made during this lucrative time, just imagine how the systems would have flourished.”

 

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Collectively, our three largest systems – the Teachers Retirement System (TRS), the State University Retirement System (SURS), and the State Employee Retirement System (SERS) – hold more than 75 billion in assets. In addition, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund (CTPF) controls more than 10 billion in assets (p10, IFT’s Union Link).

 

Additionally, “In an attempt to compensate for the lack of state funding, our pension boards have diversified and developed more investment options. For example, the less risky Fixed Income funds, which previously accounted for the majority of the investments, now account for only 1/6 to 1/5 of total holdings. Real Estate has grown to almost 10% of the portfolio.  And the largest growth has been in Equities (U.S. and international).”

 

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While pension systems across the country are divesting from risky hedge funds, here in Illinois we are increasing, and even initiating additional hedge fund investments. The American Federation of Teachers recently published research which shows that the only ones who really benefit from these types of assets are the investment managers who sell them.


Problem Number 6:
  Political Interference

Vogel contends there is cause for two concerns:

  1.  There appears to be a strategy to solve the underfunding problems by increasing our investment risks.
    These risky funds, which charge fees as high as 20%, require less oversight by the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and other watchdog groups. Yet SERS has allocated 8.4% of its funds to these investments, which lost 5.7% of their value.
  2. Governor Rauner’s political interference is additional – and serious – cause for alarm.
    Through his personal appointments, the Governor has changed the composition of our pension boards – for the worse.  Immediately upon taking office, Rauner removed Marcia Campbell, former IFT Secretary-Treasurer, from the TRS pension board.

In an even more blatant move, last year the Governor appointed Sandy Stuart to the TRS Board. Stuart is the former Illinois Republican Party finance chairman who gave more than $150,000 to Rauner’s gubernatorial campaign and more than $1.5M to Republican candidates or conservative super-PACs on the state and federal levels.  His family foundation has also donated more than $100,000 to groups like the Illinois Policy Institute and the Manhattan Institute, which oppose defined-benefit public pension plans.

Also, on the Illinois State Board of Investments, Rauner’s newly-appointed members voted to replace its investment consultants.  The new consultant and board members immediately changed policies and asset allocations, resulting in large fund losses compared to previous years and the other state pension boards.

The decline of RoI by the TRS pension fund due to unsuccessful investments in riskier hedge funds supported by new Rauner appointees to the pension board is an important issue for everyone, not just teachers.  The less Illinois pension funds gain through investments, the more costs that land at the feet of the taxpayer.

Betsy DeVos Confirmation Hearing

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“Our nation deserves a Secretary of Education who is a champion of kids, parents, state and local control and outcomes and a champion of public education.” We deserve significantly better than Betsy DeVos.

 

School choice advocate Betsy DeVos says a one size-fits-all model of learning doesn’t work and that she would promote charter, magnet, religious and other alternatives to public schools, if confirmed education secretary.

Source:  Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing

The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA), a bi-partisan, nonprofit research and advocacy think tank based in Chicago, released the results of its study into Indiana’s school choice (voucher) program.

The study’s key findings include:

  • None of the independent studies perform found any statistical evidence that children who used vouchers performed better than children in public schools.
  • Students who attend traditional K12 public schools outperform students who attend charter schools or private religious schools.
  •  Indiana’s voucher program may actually diminish student achievement in the state over time because it diverts public taxpayer dollars away from the state’s public education systems.
  • Nations that have been most successful in improving student achievement over time have a) focused on systems-based reforms that build the capacity of the overall education system and b) [avoided] reforms based on competition and choice.
  • Because the Indiana Choice legislation prohibits the state from regulating curriculum content at private schools that accept vouchers, public taxpayer money is being spent on education of uncertain quality.
  • Because white children as a percentage of voucher recipients in the 2014- 2015 school year exceed the next largest racial group by more than 44 percentage points, Indiana’s voucher program will likely lead to increased racial stratification within Indiana’s K-12 public schools.
  • The school expenditure deduction will cause local governments across Indiana to lose up to $1.4 million annually in Local Option Income Tax revenue.

While the notion of school choice is nothing new—Adam Smith discussed it in his seminal text The Wealth of Nations—when the data on the correlation between school choice programs and student achievement are examined, they consistently point to the same conclusion: there is little to no evidence that voucher programs enhance student achievement.

This research and analysis were done to answer the simple question posed at the outset of this report:

Will the Indiana Choice Legislation lead to better educational outcomes for my and/or my neighbors’ children, and be an efficient use of our taxpayer dollars, at a time when public budgets are stretched as thin as they currently are?

As it turns out, the answer is NO!
(emphasis added)

240 Candidates to Run for Lake County School Board Seats

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Undoubtedly, there’s a heightened concern revealed in the record turnout of candidates running for school board positions, myself included.

 

 

Why the sudden interest in school board candidacy?

Interest may be sparked by President Trump’s recent nominee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was described in a Washington Post article as, “a former Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan and chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children, and a shining light to members of the movement to privatize public education by working to create programs and pass laws that require the use of public funds to pay for private school tuition in the form of vouchers and similar programs.”

Another reason could be  House Bill 229, legislation recently signed by Governor Rauner that grants to the McHenry and Lake County Boards the same consolidation powers as granted to DuPage County three years ago under a pilot program.

Perhaps it’s our governor’s Turnaround Agenda, which also gives more power to local governments along with a proposal that “explicitly authorizes” a municipality’s ability to seek relief under Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code with “no requirements, pre-conditions or other limitations.”

Moving more authority in decision-making over to local school boards isn’t a new conversation.  In a 2013 Daily Herald interview, Kathy Brown, an incumbent running for Lake Zurich Unit District 95 Trustee stated, “The most significant budgetary issue facing our District is the Illinois pension crisis. The shifting of the pension burden to local districts will have a significant financial impact on all school districts.”

Then, of course, there is the federal, state, and local debt problem.  Our Federal government, for example, spent $4.3T on expenses, collected $3.7T in revenue, and carried $18.3T of debt in 2015.  Illinois spent $75B on what should have been a $71B budget addressing $141B of debt.  Lake County paid approximately $405M in expenses, collected $444M in revenue, and carried $247M in debt.  In 2015, 27% of the State budget provided funding for education, and only 2% of Federal funding was used to support educational services.

While all of this may certainly be enough to get educators “rattled,”  they can only speculate at this point what the future holds for public education.  Undoubtedly, there’s a heightened concern revealed in the record turnout of candidates running for school board positions, myself included.

This could possibly be one of the most important, if not THE most important, school board race I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.  I strongly urge voters to scrutinize candidates and make sure they represent local attitudes. One helpful tool is Illinois Sunshine, which tracks political donations that may influence a candidate’s agenda.  MapLight also offers a variety of voter resources.


Post By:  Daily Herald

Concerns over state school revenue may be one of the reasons 240 Lake County residents have decided to run for school board positions in the spring election, school officials said.

The large turnout of candidates shows up in races through the county but is particularly evident in several particular districts. For example, 11 candidates are seeking five board seats at Woodland Elementary District 50, nine have filed for four seats at Grass Lake Elementary District 36, and eight candidates have filed for two board seats at the College of Lake County.

Lake County Clerk Carla Wyckoff said her office is trying to determine if the number of candidates makes the April 4 consolidated election the largest school election in county history.

Roycealee Wood, the Lake County Regional Superintendent of Schools, said concern over state revenue seems to be one of the driving forces behind the large turnout.

To read article in its entirety, view:  240 candidates to run for Lake County school board seats