Chicago once again earned a failing grade from Truth in Accounting in their latest Financial State of the Citiesreport thanks to over $38 billion in debt – $43,100 for each taxpayer.
Every Chicagoan would have to send the city that amount just for Chicago to pay the bills it owes. Chicago has just $9.9 billion available to pay $48.6 billion in bills. The Windy City came in 74th out of 75 cities studied in the report, only besting New York City’s massive $204 billion debt with a per-taxpayer burden of $71,400.
The city’s financial failings stem from pension promises the city cannot afford to keep. “Chicago’s financial problems stem mostly from unfunded retirement obligations that have accumulated over the years. The city had set aside only 23 cents for every dollar of promised pension benefits and no money for promised retiree health care benefits,” the report notes.
In the group’s fifth annual report card on the nation’s 75 biggest cities, Irvine retains its title as the fiscally healthiest city in America — even while the vast majority of its brethren, both in California and across the nation, sink more deeply in debt thanks to promises they’ve made for pensions and retiree health care that are far more expensive than they ever expected.
Joining Irvine in the black was Stockton — testament to the restorative power of municipal bankruptcy — and the city of Fresno.
In the red in California, from least-in-debt to most-in-debt, were Long Beach, Chula Vista, Bakersfield, Riverside, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Ana, Anaheim, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland.
All told, total debt for the 75 most populous cities exceeded $333.5 billion at the end of the 2019 fiscal year. Most of that was pension debt — $180.1 billion — while the rest was for retiree health benefits, at $160.1 billion.
New Jersey has amassed a huge, and possibly dangerous, level of debt, according to a new report that reviews the financial health of state governments across the country.
Each Garden State taxpayer owes tens of thousands of dollars and the state is a tax “sinkhole,” according to the nonprofit organization Truth in Accounting (TIA), because state lawmakers of both parties have overspent and used accounting “gimmicks” for decades. The organization defines “sinkholes” as states that lack the necessary funds to pay their bills.
The S&P report also gives New Jersey a low grade on debt practices.
“On our scale of ‘1.0’ to ‘4.0’, where ‘1.0’ is the strongest score and ‘4.0’ the weakest, we have assigned a composite score of ‘3.7’ to New Jersey’s debt and liability profile,” according to S&P.
Moody’s, in its July 14 report, gave New Jersey an A3 rating on its general obligation (GO) bonds, a low rating. But it praised recent efforts by Murphy to solve the problems of long-term debt.
Fitch Ratings, in its April 13 report, gives New Jersey an A- grade. It said its rating reflects New Jersey’s “adequate financial resilience.” But it also said that its condition isn’t as good as that of most states, and stirs up some troublesome ghosts.
To encourage the publication of transparent and accurate government financial information, Truth in Accounting has created a transparency score for financial reporting by the states. This report focuses on important-but-obscure annual financial reports on file in statehouses across the country and measures their contents against widely accepted best practices from the private sector. This report is based on fiscal year (FY) 2020, which includes the onset of the pandemic and the most recent reports available for all 50 states.
The Financial Transparency Score Report measures the states on an easily understandable 0-100 scoring scale, with a perfect score of 100 signifying an ideal timely, truthful, and transparent performance. While no state earned a perfect score in this year’s analysis, TIA regards a score of 80 or above as noteworthy.
We call it the “Zombie Index” based on the work of Edward Kane, a prolific and respected finance professor at Boston College. Back in 1985 and 1989, Ed wrote two books warning about taxpayer exposure to losses from bank deposit insurance schemes, before we knew what hit us in the savings and loan crisis. Ed coined the term “zombie bank” to identify effectively-insolvent banks that were allowed to remain open by regulators and others. Deceptive accounting principles greased the wheels for regulatory forbearance, making “zombies” appear to be solvent.
Zombies had incentives, in Ed’s terms, to “gamble for resurrection.” Insiders could capture the upside of riskier investments, while prospective losses could be socialized through the government’s sponsorship (and ultimately, bailout) of deposit insurance systems. These incentives ended up magnifying taxpayer losses during the 1980s deposit insurance crisis. Those losses ran in the hundreds of billions of dollars and helped set the stage for the massive financial crisis of 2008-2009.
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.