Pension Reform: Symbolism Over Substance

On Monday, the Senate passed SB 1 with an overwhelming majority, 40-9, vote. The House is widely expected to pass the pension "reform" legislation this week and send it to Governor Wolf’s desk; where he is widely expected to sign it. One of the things absent this year is the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth from government unions on the reform measure. An article from the Patriot-News explains why:

"There is a hope that this bill, by representing another show of cooperative government between Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature, will help disarm a tricky issue for Wolf’s 2018 re-election effort.

"No unions are supporting Senate Bill 1, to be sure.

"But, in the words of AFSCME District Council 13 Executive Director David Fillman, ‘we’re not throwing bombs at it.'[…] Everyone reached for this story said they want to help give Wolf something that he can call a win on this issue."(Emphasis added)

As Mike Manzo, a lobbyist for the SEIU, stated in the same article, "I think it sets up a pretty nice narrative for the governor that on some of the issues that people thought were the most intractable in the building…He will be the governor who could achieve what no other governor could, not only on pensions, but liquor reform and money for schools (emphasis added)."

While Republicans will be technically correct about the legislation being "historic" in nature because it represents a marginal improvement for taxpayers, they are wildly overstating how much of an impact this will have on the Commonwealth’s financial future. According to a CapitolWire article (paywall):

"The actuarial note analyzing the legislation indicates there will be no pension system savings, and the risk-shifting within SB1 only matters should the systems incur significant investment shortfalls a couple decades from now. Those shortfalls, should they occur two to three decades from now, will still add more debt to our debt-ridden systems, it just won’t be quite as much added debt – the ‘historic’ savings we’re told SB1 would deliver would come at a significant cost.

"It’s pretty clear passing anything with the title ‘pension reform’ has become the goal, not passing something that’s worth passing.

"…The comparison between current law and SB1 for both the State Employees’ Retirement System (SERS) and the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) shows little-to-no difference regarding the impacts on employer contribution rates, pension funding ratios and the unfunded accrued liability going forward during the next three decades."(Emphasis added)

Senate Bill 1 does not solve Pennsylvania’s pension problems. We will still have a$74 billion unfunded liability for current employees, and that number is likely to grow because there doesn’t seem to be the political will to address it. Furthermore, as Michigan illustrates, the hybrid plan can (and likely will) accumulate unfunded liabilities. Finally, the legislation permits current members of the General Assembly to continue to accrue their Cadillac pension benefits if they refuse to opt into the 401(k)-style system.

Be sure to keep all of this in mind when you’re reading the news about the "historic" pension reform and hear about it from politicians seeking your vote. Taxpayers are still on the hook for a massive amount of money and current members of the General Assembly can continue to accumulate benefits making the matter worse.