An example of questionable disclosure practices is found in the Illinois budgeting and financial reporting process, specifically regarding pension contributions. In 1994, then-Gov. Jim Edgar led an effort to pass a bipartisan bill to solve the state’s $15 billion pension deficit. The plan would resolve the deficit within 50 years. The plan was structured to pay down the debt very slowly in the first 15 years and accelerate at the end. This ensured that sitting politicians in the early days of the plan would not be required to make the necessary tax increases or budget cuts to pay down the debt in a meaningful way.
This program is shown in charts to look like a skateboard ramp, appropriately named the “Edgar Ramp.” The problem is, the plan doesn’t work.
It is so unsuccessful that the Illinois pension deficit has grown from $15 billion to $317 billion as of June 30, 2020, according to Moody’s Investors Service. The state’s latest bond offering document emphasizes, “The state’s contributions to the retirement systems, while in conformity with state law, have been less than the contributions necessary to fully fund the retirement systems as calculated by the actuaries of the retirement systems.”
The latest Illinois Annual Comprehensive Financial Report discloses cash-flow problems, significantly underfunded pension obligations, other post-retirement benefit deficits and multiple references to debt-obligation bonds.
But one of my very smart readers did go through it and reached out to me yesterday…
Long time follower, first time writer. In full disclosure, I recently retired from the [redacted] after more than [redacted] years. I just read the COGFA article today and was encouraged about the State’s finances yet again.
Another report that came out in late December that received no coverage was the State Actuary Report (see link below). The unheralded news in this report was that there were several State pension systems that passed the “Tread Water” point in FY21; meaning we are now paying in more than we owe and reducing the liability for those systems.
Now, what she identifies as an “accomplishment,” having finished the climb up the pension ramp, is actually a state law that left her no choice in the matter. But that’s not the only incorrect part of her statement. Even having finally left the ramp behind, the plans are not funded on an “actuarially determined basis.” They are funded based on the Illinois legislature’s decision of a funding schedule which, for the police and fire plans, is sufficient to attain 90% funding in the year 2055, and for the Municipal and Laborers’ plan, not until 2058. Yes, if you do the math, that’s 34 and 37 years from now.
In fact, the plans’ actuarial valuations calculate a figure that’s labelled the Actuarially Determined Contribution. For the Fire plan (19% funded), the city’s contribution was only 79% of the ADC; for the Police plan (23% funded), the city’s contribution was only 75% of the ADC. And these are the two plans which reached the top of the ramp last year!
The first metric is net amortization, which measures whether total contributions to a public retirement system are sufficient to reduce unfunded liabilities if all actuarial assumptions—primarily investment expectations— are met for that year. Plans with positive net amortization are expected to retire pension debt over time and therefore improve their funded status.
Pew reviewed the three-year average for net amortization. This figure provides a more complete picture of contribution adequacy given the impact of volatile investment performance and demographic experience on plan assets. In total, the 33 cities in Pew’s analysis achieved positive amortization (104% of the benchmark) from 2015 to 2017. However, individually, more than half of the cities had negative amortization. Notably, Chicago and Dallas contributed less than 50% of the benchmark. In contrast, New Orleans contributed 174%, or $132 million, which was well over the city’s benchmark over the time period. For cities that are poorly funded, net amortization can indicate that they are on a path toward sustainably funding their pension plans. For example, New Orleans and Philadelphia have both increased their contributions significantly in recent years to achieve positive net amortization and decrease unfunded liabilities. On the other hand, better funded cities that fell short of the benchmark may face growing pension debt absent a policy change or adjustment.
That $6.4 billion is what the actuaries hired by New Jersey for the specific purpose of providing absurdly low contribution amounts came out with for the 7/1/21 to 6/30/22 plan year. It includes a massive amortization portion to make up for decades of absurdly low contribution amounts (some of which were not even deposited).