Iowa (the blue line) maintained positive net revenue in 15 of the 16 years. Illinois, on the other hand, did so in only three of those 16 years.
The frequency of truly-balanced-budgets, as indicated by “Net Revenue,” provides significant explanatory power (in econometrics-speak) for two important measures of state government performance – Truth in Accounting’s “Taxpayer Burden” measure of overall financial condition and rankings of the states on the latest Gallup results for a survey of trust in state government.
In our latest (2021) Financial State of the States report on state government finances, Iowa ranked 9th, while Illinois ranked 48th. And in the latest Gallup poll on trust in state government, Iowa ranked 8th, while Illinois ranked 50th (dead last).
Unfunded retirement liabilities are the largest contributing factor to the $1.5 trillion in state-level debt. One of the ways states make their budgets look balanced is by shortchanging public pension and OPEB funds. This practice has resulted in a $926.3 billion shortfall in pension funds and a $638.7 billion shortfall in OPEB funds
One large benefit of a tile grid map is you can see the geographically small states, which are often more obscured when you a geographically accurate map.
When viewed in this way, with the states colored by their grades, you can see that there’s a Northeastern Rogue’s Gallery, in addition to the expected stinkers of Illinois, Kentucky, and California (also, Hawaii, but many people don’t expect that one.)
But I want to point out that a lot of “red” states, in the political sense, also have crappy finances.
Texas is a particularly bad offender here, with a taxpayer deficit of -$13,100 per taxpayer. It’s not just the “expected” states where pensions are grossly underfunded — mind you, pretty much every single taxpayer sinkhole here has grossly underfunded state-level pensions — but it is a widespread problem.
NPPC, I recommend you think through what will actually inform and protect your members. The TIA folks are not distorting the message, except to the extent that state and local governments are undervaluing their pension and OPEB promises.
Complaining about TIA will not make the pensions better-funded. Complaining about TIA will not prevent the worst-funded pensions from running out of assets, which will not be supportable as pay-as-you-go, as the asset death spiral before that will show that the cash flows were unaffordable for the local tax base.
And don’t look to the federal government to save your hash. So far bailout amounts have been puny compared to the size of the promises.
Spending plans that “fully fund” pension obligations by making statutorily required contributions — amounts required by legislators, by law — do not necessarily fully fund pensions. In fact, Illinois has a sad history of passing laws with funding that falls far short of actuarial requirements — the amounts necessary to keep pension (and related retirement health care) debt from rising over time.
For an example, take a peek at the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS). Their annual report for 2020 is available here. The table on pdf page 2 shows that the system has accumulated more than $50 billion in invested assets, but this massive amount actually falls far short of the nearly $140 billion in present value obligation for future pension payments, leading to a nearly $90 billion unfunded liability.
The practice of distributing unfunded promises to pay money in the future has been a key of the tool chest that politicians have employed in misleading the citizenry that Illinois has lived up to constitutional balanced budget requirements, when in truth it has done anything but.
Transparency is not just a good thing for the public. A study of the 2012 Recovery Act (ARRA) showed that the biggest users of publicly available data were government officials, who used the information to track spending. Cities that do not already issue comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFRs) should adopt them for the benefit of policymakers and the public. Meet or exceed Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and Government Accounting Services Board (GASB) statements in your reporting. Clearly account for liabilities such as pensions, retiree health benefits and infrastructure maintenance and replacement. Have that accounting independently verified.
According to a January 2021 report from Truth in Accounting, the top 75 US cities have a combined unfunded public pension obligation of more than $180 billion. Cities often underfund these obligations to cover budget shortcomings elsewhere, an irresponsible game of whack-a-mole.
Treasury guidance forbids using ARPA money in pension funds to cover unfunded liabilities from before the COVID emergency. It does allow spending on current payments for either defined benefit or defined contribution plans. Cities could use ARPA funds to provide additional payments to those plans to encourage employees to switch from their traditional pension to a defined contribution plan—which is a much more financially sound position for cities to be in.
Truth in Accounting has released a new analysis of the 10 most populous U.S. cities that includes their largest underlying government units. With the exception of New York City, most municipalities do not include in their annual financial reports the finances of large, underlying government units for which city taxpayers are also responsible, such as school districts, and transit and housing authorities.
This report takes into account these underlying government entities and provides residents and taxpayers in these cities with a more accurate and holistic view of their respective city’s finances. We only include underlying entities that city governments claim responsibility for in their annual financial reports. These underlying governments are essentially subsidiaries of the city and the majority of their debt falls on all city taxpayers. When the unfunded debt of these underlying government units is combined with the county, municipal, and state debt, city taxpayers are on the hook for much more than they think.
As routine as the changing of the seasons, every year, Truth in Accounting (TIA) produces a new report which declares that taxpayers across the country will somehow have to foot a huge tax bill immediately to pay for their state’s unfunded pension liabilities. However, a recent working paper from the Brookings Institution shows this is not a truthful depiction of how public pension funding works.
TIA often argues that taxpayers are responsible for paying their city and/or state’s unfunded liabilities in a few ways. First, if a pension isn’t at 100% funded status in the course of a given year, they state that the pension is somehow in grave jeopardy and that its unfunded liabilities need to be paid immediately to ensure the pension is “debt-free.” They then calculate a supposed “taxpayer burden,” or an amount each taxpayer will have to pay to meet their state or local pension’s unfunded liabilities.
These tactics, which are often amplified by news outlets critical of public pensions such as the Center Square, are designed to elicit fear that taxpayers will have to fork over a large bill at some point in the future for their area’s pensions.
Author(s): Tristan Fitzpatrick
Publication Date: 2 June 2021
Publication Site: National Public Pension Coalition
Unlike FASB, the SEC has no control over GASB. But the Commission is obligated “to protect investors in the municipal markets from fraud, including misleading disclosures [emphasis added].” Taken together, the SEC’s own statements make a strong case that it is obligated to prevent fraud in state and local governments’ financial reports, which are confusing and obfuscate the truth.
The state and local governments’ annual financial reports are based on shoddy accounting practices. If confusing and misleading disclosures are considered fraud, then annual reports produce fraudulent disclosures.
It is confusing and misleading that the GASB requires state and local governments to keep two sets of books. Annual financial reports include governmental fund statements that are prepared using an accounting basis called the “modified accrual basis,” which in essence uses short-sighted cash accounting, while the consolidated financial statements are prepared using accrual accounting standards similar to those used by corporations.
Watch a recording of Truth in Accounting’s virtual event with special guest Steve Malanga, senior editor at City Journal. In this episode, we discussed the financial troubles of America’s largest cities and the effects of Biden’s infrastructure plan.
Author(s): Bill Bergman, Sheila Weinberg, Steve Malanga
This video contains 15 testimonies before the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) in March and April of 2021 by citizens, elected officials, think tank leaders, and more. All of whom argued against GASB’s proposals to continue cash-basis-like accounting for governmental funds statements. Cash-basis accounting supports bad government budgeting practices like counting borrowing proceeds as revenue, and underfunding pension funding requirements, in order to “balance budgets.” On the other hand, full accrual accounting shows expenses as they are incurred, especially when a government makes a promise to pay in the future.
Publication Date: 6 May 2021
Publication Site: Truth in Accounting channel at YouTube