TRS currently uses a 7.25% assumed rate of return, which is on the higher end of investment return assumptions among major public systems.
The national average expected rate of return has fallen to 7.0% over the years, with major plans like CalPERS now lowering assumptions into the 6-7% range.
Despite SB12 (2019), with investment returns expected to underperform over the next decade relative to expectations, capping contribution rates in statute creates the perfect conditions for unfunded liabilities to keep accruing just as they have since 2001.
Arizona and Michigan have enacted more than a dozen substantive pension reform bills over the past five years. Credit-rating agencies and national retirement experts have cited Arizona’s public-safety pension reforms. Moody’s Investors Service gave Michigan’s teacher retirement reform a “credit positive” review because the state and participating local governments “will no longer carry the entire burden of investment performance risk for new employee pensions.”
Pension reform need not be partisan. After gaining input and buy-in from unions for police officers, firefighters and other public employees, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, overhauled her state’s public-employee pension plan for workers who aren’t teachers. “We must make changes now—the alternative is to saddle New Mexicans with unacceptable risk,” Ms. Grisham said, urging fellow Democrats to pass reforms. In 2018, Colorado legislators bridged their differences in a divided government to pass comprehensive reforms that increased employee and employer contributions, reduced cost-of-living adjustments, raised the retirement age, and expanded the use of defined-contribution plans for future employees to address the chronic structural underfunding of the state’s main public pension system.
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) recently reported a 26 percent increase in early teacher retirements in the second half of 2020 relative to the previous year. CalSTRS officials suggest that the COVID-19-driven spike in retirements will not affect the pension plan’s long-term solvency. But even if that holds true, CalSTRS is currently only 66 percent funded and has $100 billion in unfunded benefits. The costs associated with paying off this pension debt are skyrocketing and siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from classrooms each year.
Like many states, California has made decades of legally ironclad promises to teachers regarding retirement benefits that, for a variety of reasons, have become massively underfunded. The most notable factors contributing to growing debt are underperforming investments, inaccurate actuarial assumptions, and politicians’ longstanding preference to spend money on sexier things than retirement plans. When a public pension plan accrues debt, states and school districts need to start paying down that debt in addition to covering the normal operating costs associated with pensions. While California’s ledger would indicate it has been making pension debt payments, CalSTRS funding has only gotten worse over the last decade.