Pennsylvania Repeating Michigan Mistake?
By Leo Knepper
Some members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly continue to push a “hybrid” defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) plan as the solution to the Commonwealth’s pension problems. Senate Bill 1 is the latest iteration of this “reform” proposal. As we have previously noted, plan design changes for future employees will not address the current unfunded liability. The only way to address the unfunded liability is to modify the pension benefits for current employees or enact funding reform. Adjusting pension benefits for current employees would run into legal challenges, leaving funding reform as the more likely option.
Switching from a traditional DB pension to a hybrid plan will not solve our problems in the long run. We need to look no further than the state of Michigan to see how hybrid plans fail to live up to their promises. A recent article from CapitolWire(paywall) summarizes the situation:
“What Michigan did in 2010 is exactly what some Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers want to do for both state and public school employees starting in 2018…While some Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to convince their colleagues to embrace a hybrid plan (in Senate Bill 1), Michigan lawmakers want to end theirs in favor of a standalone defined contribution plan…One of the sponsors of the new effort in Michigan, Rep. Thomas Albert, called the 2010 MPSERS hybrid, ‘A Band-Aid for a bullet wound,’ while Michigan’s Speaker of the House, Tom Leonard, penned a column in which he called MPSERS ‘little more than one big I.O.U., a shaky promise signed by long-gone Lansing politicians…Michigan’s historic failure to reform the pension system has been a terrible deal for the hard-working people who take care of and educate our children. It is well past time we fix that mistake and give teachers the benefits they deserve.'”(Emphasis added)
After switching to a hybrid plan, Michigan’s unfunded liability grew because lawmakers there relied on overly optimistic assumptions and continued to underfund the system. Using history as a guide, why should we think Pennsylvania would be any different? Our current unfunded liability is over $74 billion because politicians make promises and don’t have the will to pay for them. An unwillingness on the part of politicians to pay for their promises is not just a Pennsylvania problem, as noted in a recent column from Heritage Foundation analyst.
Harrisburg’s “long-gone” politicians increased government employees’ and teachers’ pensions by 25 percent in 2001; lawmakers increased their pensions by 50 percent at the same time. This act became law with a signature from Gov. Tom Ridge and illustrates that our pension problem is bipartisan in its origin.
The only way to remove political gamesmanship from the equation is for the Commonwealth to adopt a straight 401(k) DC-type plan and enact pension reform to address our current unfunded liabilities. Leadership in the House and Senate like to point out that Governor Wolf wouldn’t sign legislation establishing a DC plan. If they were smart, they would put it on his desk anyway, let the Wolf veto it, and then work to elect a governor who would enact the kind of reform Pennsylvania needs.