PSERS Loses Money

PSERS Loses Money




PSERS Loses Money

By Leo Knepper

The Pennsylvania Public Schools Employee Retirement System (PSERS), released its 2015 performance results last week, and they weren’t good. PSERS assumes a 7.5 percent rate each year to avoid appearing even more underfunded than its publically stated $44 BILLION in unfunded liabilities. For 2015, PSERS lost nearly 1.8 percent. When we’re dealing with billions of dollars, the difference between the pension plan’s expected returns and actual returns is a substantial amount of money.

Last year’s loss comes despite PSERS spending a small fortune on “active” fund managers who are supposed to anticipate future market conditions and invest resources accordingly. As noted by the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“PSERS’s extra losses reflected its unusually large bets on commodity fund managers. The system posted a 33 percent loss for funds invested in “Master Limited Partnerships” (typically oil and gas investments), an 18 percent loss for commodities investments, and an 8 percent loss in “risk parity” investments, which can look a lot like hedge fund strategies.”

No fund manager can outperform the market every time, and this isn’t just the opinion of CAP. It a position widely held by well-respected academics and folks like Warren Buffet.

The previously mentioned Inquirer article notes that Montgomery County adopted a low-cost index fund investment approach two years ago. Last year, they substantially outperformed PSERS with a modest .3 percent return on investments. Montgomery County’s performance was not a fluke. In his book “Future Forsaken”, John McGinnis compares PSERS performance (and the others SERS system) to an index fund approach. He found that the low-cost option outperformed the current actively management funds across a thirty-year time horizon.

On top of outperforming active managers, switching to lower cost index funds could save taxpayers $750 million per year. Given the facts, there is no reason for the state’s pension systems to maintain the status quo and every reason to explore alternatives to protect taxpayers and future retirees.

Mr. Knepper is executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.

PSERS Loses Money

Wolf Pension Commission Reversal

Wolf Pension Commission Reversal By Leo Knepper

One of the casualties of Governor Wolf’s budget veto was a little-known agency that independently reviews proposed changes to pubic pensions and regulates municipal pensions. The Public Employee Retirement Commission (PERC) was established by law in 1972, and its duties were expanded by two separate laws subsequently. Despite its statutory basis, Governor Wolf decided he could eliminate PERC with the stroke of a pen.

Representatives Stephen Bloom and Seth Grove disagreed and filed a lawsuit to keep PERC open. The Governor continues to argue that he has the authority to eliminate the agency without any input from the legislature. However, the administration entered into an agreement with the lawmakers to keep PERC open, and it was approved by a court.

Governor Wolf’s position is that the work performed by PERC can be performed by other agencies. He may be correct. PERC’s role might be able to be filled by non-dedicated employees at substantial savings to taxpayers. However, Wolf does not have the authority to eliminate an agency created by law on a whim. Instead, he should go through the legislative process and respect the separation of powers.Wolf Pension Commission Reversal

Governor Wolf is taking a nice leisurely stroll down the road toward authoritarianism and taking a page out of President Obama’s playbook on executive overreach. Limitations on the authority of the executive branch does not seem to be something the he is inclined to observe. Wolf is in the process of creating a constitutional crisis by vetoing prison funding and then requesting the same funds to be distributed by the Treasurer. Finally, he unilaterally raised the minimum wage for state employees.

We are just over a year into Wolf’s tenure. It will be interesting to see what he tries to get away with next.

Mr. Knepper is executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.

Wolf Pension Commission Reversal

Tomlinson Funeral Business Called Conflict

Tomlinson Funeral Business Called Conflict By Leo Knepper

In early January, we noted the conflict of interest between Senator Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson’s (R-6) role in the legislature and professional life as a funeral director:

“These two careers shouldn’t interfere with each other, but Sen. Tomlinson’s role as chairman of the Senate of Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee is putting his two jobs in conflict, raising profound ethical questions that should concern Pennsylvania taxpayers. Tomlinson Funeral Business Called Conflict

“Despite no documented consumer complaints, his committee and the Senate have approved SB 874, pushed by Sen. Tomlinson and his fellow funeral directors to stop legitimate competition with cemeteries in the area of pre-need sales. The name of the committee is ironic since the legislation would create less competition and higher prices for families burying loved ones.

“While he isn’t the prime sponsor of SB 874, Capitol insiders refer to it as ‘Tommy’s bill.’ Many are rightly calling this bill a product of a ‘turf war’ between southeastern Pennsylvania funeral homes and a company called StoneMor.”

Rather than backing off of the legislation that would benefit him personally, Senator Tomlinson has not only doubled down he is now using his position as Chairman in an attempt to extort the House:

“He has warned lawmakers he will not run certain bills out of his committee until his counterparts in the House Consumer Affairs Committee pass the cemetery bill, a source said. As a result, two water companies, which have no connection to the funeral industry, are lobbying the House to approve the cemetery bill so their bills, already approved by the House, get a fair shake in the Senate, that source said…Rep. Robert Godshall, R-Montgomery, chairman of the House Consumer Affairs Committee, declined to comment, saying he did not want the situation to get worse for the Legislature.” (Emphasis added)

Sen. Tomlinson denies that he is using his position to benefit his family business. Despite statements from the Federal Trade Commission indicating that the changes are unnecessary and would result in higher prices, Tomlinson insists that he wants to change the law for the benefit of consumers.

We will keep you informed about the legislation if there is any movement, or if Tomlinson can explain how higher prices and reduced competition are good for you.

Mr. Knepper is executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.

Tomlinson Funeral Business Called Conflict

Kathleen Kane Hearing Theater Of Absurd

Kathleen Kane Hearing Theater Of AbsurdKathleen Kane Hearing Theater Of Absurd By Leo Knepper

Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, the Governor can request the removal of certain “civil officials” outside of the impeachment process. After the suspension of Kane’s law license, and refusal to resign, a Special Committee on Senate Address was convened to determine if Kane should remain in office without her law license. On Tuesday, (Jan. 12) the Special Committee on Senate Address held its final hearing on Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

The hearing was eye-opening, to say the least. Although Attorney General Kane did not testify, her Chief of Staff, Jonathan Duecker, addressed the Committee in her stead. Duecker was frequently backed into a corner, mainly because his positions defied logic and were self-contradictory. When his statements didn’t put him into a corner, they were hedged and revealed how little Duecker knew about the operations of the Attorney General’s office. For example, Duecker had no idea what Kane’s day to day schedule was and couldn’t say for sure when she had last worked in Harrisburg. He also didn’t know if Kane had provided written instructions to the Attorney General’s legal staff about changes to procedure after she had her law license suspended. Duecker also was unable to answer fundamental questions about the contracting process Kane went through when she appointed a “Special Prosecutor” related to her investigation into pornographic emails. His unfamiliarity with the details of this contract comes as a surprise considering its high profile and the controversy it caused among the legal staff in the AG’s office.

If you have two and a half hours and want to watch the testimony, it can be found here. However if you wish to maintain any confidence in the operational capacity of the Attorney General’s office, you should probably skip it.

Rounding out the hearing was testimony from Ed Rendell. He didn’t exactly speak in defense of Kane. Rather, he talked about his time as the Philadelphia District Attorney and how a large part of his work did not require him to have a law license. Although Rendell seemed to enjoy his walk down memory lane, his testimony was only marginally relevant because District Attorneys are not subject to the Commonwealth Attorneys Act. The Act defines the role of the AG as an elected position and what legal responsibilities it has in the Commonwealth. Despite Rendell’s commentary, his experience as a District Attorney is hardly relevant to Kane’s ability to function with a suspended law license. He also urged the General Assembly to go through the impeachment process, instead of the Senate utilizing the Special Committee on Senate Address to resolve the issue of Kane’s suitability for office.

The Senate Committee will issue its final report by the end of January and make its recommendation to the full Senate.
Mr. Knepper is executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.

Kathleen Kane Hearing Theater Of Absurd

Funeral Bill Called Conflict For Tomlinson

Funeral Bill Called Conflict For TomlinsonFuneral Bill Called Conflict For Tomlinson

By Leo Knepper

In Harrisburg, most people know Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson as a state senator from Bucks County, serving his fifth four-year term representing the 6th District. A career politician, he also represented the people of the 18th House District from 1991-94.

But most people back home in his district know him primarily for his other career – as a full-time funeral director and owner of Tomlinson Funeral Home in Bensalem, which was opened by his father in 1945.

These two careers shouldn’t interfere with each other, but Sen. Tomlinson’s role as chairman of the Senate of Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee is putting his two jobs in conflict, raising profound ethical questions that should concern Pennsylvania taxpayers.

Despite no documented consumer complaints, his committee and the Senate have approved SB 874, pushed by Sen. Tomlinson and his fellow funeral directors to stop legitimate competition with cemeteries in the area of pre-need sales. The name of the committee is ironic since the legislation would create less competition and higher prices for families burying loved ones.

While he isn’t the prime sponsor of SB 874, Capitol insiders refer to it as “Tommy’s bill.” Many are rightly calling this bill a product of a “turf war” between southeastern Pennsylvania funeral homes and a company called StoneMor.

Here’s a brief primer on pre-need sales and the incarnation of SB 874: In May 2014, StoneMor entered into a lease to operate eight of the diocesan cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a management agreement for the remaining five diocesan cemeteries in the Philadelphia area. Before StoneMor assuming operational responsibility of the cemeteries, the archdiocese didn’t offer customers the option of purchasing vaults and caskets directly from the cemetery. As a result, those products were purchased only from funeral directors, with no competition from cemeteries. When StoneMor entered the market, it started selling cemetery merchandise in competition with the funeral directors.

Senate Bill 874 would force cemeteries to adhere to the 1982 Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has refused to include cemeteries due to a lack of consumer complaints. The FTC reviewed this legislation and concluded Senate Bill 874 could result in potentially higher prices and less consumer choice, without producing any benefits for consumers.

Last legislative session, a similar House bill received a hearing by the House Consumer Affairs Committee.  Shockingly, Sen. Tomlinson, a funeral home owner whose business would benefit greatly by the legislation’s passage, was permitted to participate in the panel during the hearing and ask questions. The transcript of the hearing reads like an attack on StoneMor by Sen. Tomlinson and Rep. Micozzie.
At one point, former Pennsylvania Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association President Guy Saxton testified: “I know you don’t like StoneMor, but I’m not StoneMor. And this bill puts me out of business. And everything I’ve heard today tells me that this bill is not in good faith. It’s not trying to help the consumer, it’s attempting to put StoneMor out of business, and we’re collateral damage.”

Why should Pennsylvania taxpayers care?

Taxpayers from Bensalem to Bethlehem to Butler should worry when a powerful, five-term senator is using the legislative process to protect his family business by eliminating the competition.
The state Senate must answer serious ethical questions on how Sen. Tomlinson is allowed to chair a committee that directly impacts his industry. Further scrutiny is required to understand how Sen. Tomlinson was permitted to vote on the Senate floor for this legislation.

If Sen. Tomlinson were interested in what’s best for consumers, he would reduce the regulatory burden for funeral homes. There is a disparity between how funeral homes and cemeteries are treated under the law. Cemeteries have few restrictions on who can sell preneed products and how the funds from preneed sales are allocated. Pennsylvania government has created an environment that increases costs for consumers. Instead of working to make it easier for funeral home operators and thereby reduce the cost for consumers, Thomlinson is advocating for policies that will increase funeral costs for consumers and hurt his competition.

SB 874 is an excellent example of crony capitalism and a perfect illustration of how government increases the cost of living, or in this case dying, in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Knepper is executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.

Funeral Bill Called Conflict For Tomlinson

Attorney General Without Law License

By Leo Knepper Attorney General Without Law License

Pennsylvania finds itself in the unenviable position of having an Attorney General, who is not only under indictment but whose law license is going to be suspended in thirty days. The Supreme Court unanimously decided to suspend Kathleen Kane’s license as the result of the ongoing criminal case against her. Although she can appeal the Court’ decision, her attorneys have not indicated whether or not they are going to take that path. Without a law license, Kane will be unable to carry out basic tasks like signing legal documents. However, Kane is (still) not resigning as Attorney General.

It is not clear exactly how Kane will function as Attorney General without a law license, it is clear that she is going to release “thousands” of pornographic emails. The emails were sent by “government officials, including law enforcement officials and judges” according to the Attorney General’s office. Where the issue of releasing emails becomes a little murky is Kane’s arguments only a couple of days ago that she was not going to release the emails…and that is after calling for the emails to be released a couple weeks ago. Confused? You are not alone. The Philadelphia Inquirer characterized her position as “elusive”.

That same article noted that Kane had so far only highlighted emails sent by a “group of political foes and state officials with ties to them.” The disconnect between how Kane treats friends versus her foes is highlighted by her Chief of Staff, Jonathan Duecker. Prior to being promoted, the Attorney General’s personnel office recommended firing Duecker over sexual harassment claims.

There will certainly be more news coming out of the Attorney General’s office. However based on Kane’s disparate treatment of staff and schizophrenic attitude toward emails, it is questionable how much of the activity will be related to the administration of justice. Will Kane make all of the inappropriate emails public? Or, will she be selective and use them to fulfill a vendetta? It would be in the public’s best interest for all materials to be released, but the public’s best interest does not appear to be one of Kane’s top priorities.

Mr. Knepper is executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.

Attorney General Without Law License

 

Unions Spending Big On Pa Supreme Court

By Leo Knepper Unions Spending Big On Pa Supreme Court

Leading up to the May primaries we noted that organized labor had made significant contributions to the campaign of Judge Kevin Dougherty. (Note: Dougherty’s brother was just made the head of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council.) The spending did not stop after the primaries ended; it expanded. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article, organized labor has now made over $1.3 million in direct contributions to candidates for the Supreme Court.

Unions see the composition of the Supreme Court as being of critical importance in the near future:

“‘For us right now, the Supreme Court is ground zero,’ said Joe Battaglia, treasurer of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, representing about 3,000 workers in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.”

The article outlines how unions see the Supreme Court as a bull work against any legislation that affects whether or not the government will act as a union collection agent for dues and political contributions. Supreme Court elections are generally sleepy affairs. However, this year’s elections will impact what ability the Legislature has to address issues like liquor store privatization and pension reform for decades.

If the Supreme Court races have flown under your radar up until now, you had better start paying attention. Otherwise, Pennsylvania may find itself with a court more interested in affecting policy than being interested in what the laws and state constitution actually say.

Mr. Knepper is with Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, anon-profit organization founded to raise the standard of living of all Pennsylvanians.

Unions Spending Big On Pa Supreme Court

Failing Schools Enabled By Gov. Wolf

By Leo Knepper Failing Schools Enabled By Gov. Wolf

“…I’m in this spot where I have to call the school that failed my kids and re-enroll them…I’m heartbroken over this.”

That quote comes from Amy Millar via a Philadelphia Inquirer story on the State Education Department’s recent action to “clarify” what services cyber-charter schools can offer. According to the article, two of Ms. Millar’s children have special education needs. However, her children have flourished at the Education Plus Academy Cyber Charter School (Ed Plus).

What did Ed Plus do to bring the wrath of the state education bureaucracy down on their heads? They offered their students services like art, gym, and “face-to-face” learning opportunities at their learning centers. In other words, they looked at the needs of their students and provided for them. The State Department of Education evidently frowns on the hybrid model used by Ed Plus. As a result parents like Ms. Millard will be forced to send their children back to schools that were failing to meet their needs in the first place.

Although the Governor purports to want “quality” education for all. His administration’s actions in this and other cases clearly illustrate that is not entirely accurate. The Governor’s interest is in making sure that his patrons at the teachers’ union are happy and that there is as little competition as possible in the public education sphere.

If the Wolf administration was interested in ensuring every child received a quality education, they would be applauding Ed Plus. Furthermore, they would be examining what that school is doing differently and seeing how it might be replicated in other schools. The Department of Education should be looking at how they could make it easier for others schools to provide the same education experience. Instead, they seem more interested in erecting barriers to a quality education.

Mr. Knepper is with Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania

Failing Schools Enabled By Gov. Wolf

State Redevelopment Projects Exposed

By Leo Knepper State Redevelopment Projects Exposed

We have long been critical of “economic development projects”. Many times, the projects amount to little more than corporate welfare. Project backers frequently over promise, and under deliver in terms of jobs and an impact on the local economy. Using state funds to benefit private interests is a breeding ground ripe for crony capitalism and corruption. A project in Montgomery County provides an example of another problem, the bait-and-switch.

In 2008, the General Assembly and Governor Rendell authorized an expenditure of $15 million for the “[a]cquisition, infrastructure, rehabilitation, construction and other costs related to the redevelopment of the Ardmore Train Station, including the abatement of hazardous materials.” Seven years later the project has yet to break ground. Making matters even worse, the redevelopment of the Ardmore Train Station no longer includes redeveloping the actual train station.

While in the planning stages, Lower Merion Township drastically expanded the scope of the project to include the creation of “mixed use” property and a parking garage adjacent to the train station. Because of funding issues the train station project and mixed-use project were separated. As time went on less emphasis was placed on rehabilitating the train station, and more attention went into the private development. However, the state funding source never changed.

Although the funds were earmarked for redeveloping the train station, the township ultimately approved using the funds for a parking garage. In December of 2013, Governor Corbett’s Office of the Budget rescinded $12 million in funding. As noted by an extensive article from the Main Line Times, the Office of the Budget correctly recognized that the scope of the project had shifted markedly and, as a result, the funding would be reduced and made for the train station only.

The Office of the Budget was correct in its decision. Although the rehabilitation of the train station would have had a minimal impact on the economy of the area, it was at least a project for the “public good”. In contrast, the bulk of the benefit from the multi-use and parking portion of the project would have been to the bottom line of the property developer: Dranoff Properties. The decision to rescind the money did not stand long. After lobbying from Dranoff, the project had $10.5 million in funding reinstated by the Office of the Budget.  As an interesting coincidence, Carl Dranoff made $10,000 in campaign contributions to Governor Corbett’s re-election campaign over the course of 2014.

The legislative language explicitly tied the original funding to the rehabilitation of a train station. However, the project has shifted focus entirely to a private development, and that is a wholly inappropriate use of public funds. A local organization, the Save Ardmore Coalition, has filed a lawsuit against the township and Governor Wolf regarding this matter. They were also kind enough to bring this issue to our attention. We will monitor the lawsuit as it progresses, and we would also encourage members of the General Assembly to revisit the appropriateness of the project given the explicit authorization language.

State Redevelopment Projects Exposed

Bad Pension Legislation Lives

By Leo KnepperBad Pension Legislation Lives

Bad legislation never dies in Harrisburg, and it doesn’t even slowly fade away.

So the Tobash plan for changing the design of pensions for certain classes of new employees is getting another push. The Tobash plan, HB 1499, is sponsored by Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill), but it was originally the idea of folks at the Public Employees Retirement Commission (PERC). It is their duty with respect to the state pensions systems “to assure their actuarial viability through a review of any proposed legislative changes in those plans.”

When reviewing HB 900 this past June, which really does “stop the bleeding” and would eliminate the unfunded liabilities of SERS and PSERS over 20 years, PERC decided that it was more important for legislators to consider other budget priorities. In other words, the institution, whose sole purpose is to assure the soundness of public employee pensions, instructed legislators in PERC’s review of HB 900 to continue their dreadful and harmful 12 year policy of diverting funds from pensions to other purposes.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that four of the nine members of PERC’s board are legislators, and one of them is Rep. Tobash. The other five members are gubernatorial appointees. What incentive do they have to assure that pensions will be adequately funded when the last three governors, including the current one, wanted no such thing?

The Tobash plan was introduced last year as an amendment to HB 1353. At that time, it set up a “stacked” retirement benefit system. The first $50,000 in state employee pay is eligible for a traditional pension; beyond that there is a 401(k) style plan. It is worth noting that the average state employee salary was $52,655 for 2014. In other words, the Tobash plan as introduced last year would have had impacted very few future employees. According to actuarial analysis done last year, 98.8% of the “savings” projected under the Tobash plan is 15 years or farther into the future, which is a pretty big problem since SERS and PSERS are on course to be bankrupt in 15 years.

While some of these same criticisms certainly apply to SB1, the Senate’s pension reform plan, Tobash’s plan goes completely in the wrong direction. Rather than addressing the unfunded liabilities and pension costs of current employees, the Tobash plan would merely provide lawmakers the ability to say they passed pension reform without actually addressing anything.

Politicians are very sensitive to current and near-term costs because the next election is less than 2 to 4 years away. But the massive harm heading toward the commonwealth in less than a generation-well, that’s someone else’s problem apparently.

And so, another Rube Goldberg device will be trotted out, debated, lobbied, perhaps even voted on (and if passed, vetoed) and all the while the unfunded liability which impends doom for the future of the commonwealth remains unaddressed. It’s simply the politicians’ usual play: bait and switch-promise changes later and call that savings. Then use the phony savings to justify continuing to underfund the pensions and divert monies to other places in the budget.

The priority is always less pension funding today, and when tomorrow comes, the priority will be less funding then too. It might get politicians re-elected, but it’s not exactly anyone’s definition of statesmanship.

Mr. Knepper is with Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.

Bad Pension Legislation Lives