“The bottom line is this: Our state has a serious pension problem, and we need to start talking about how it can be fixed before it’s too late.”
With that statement, Missouri State Treasurer Eric Schmitt described our state’s severe underfunding of public employee retirement plans. To put an issue that Show-Me Institute writers have been highlighting for years in simple terms, when initial contributions to a retirement plan are too low or don’t grow as fast as projected, spending promises can’t be kept. Either retirees are hung out to dry, or taxpayers must step up and pay what a plan cannot.
Addressing our current spending issues is essential to improving our state’s fiscal health, but if we fail to consider Missouri’s long-term pension obligations the results could be disastrous.
As any savvy investor knows, the power of compounding can make a huge difference when it comes to saving. If our investment assumptions today are even slightly different from what actually happens in the market, this difference can grow rapidly over time. A widening gap between assumed and actual returns is especially troubling, because most economists agree that estimates for pension investment returns are often too rosy.
In 2015, Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute estimated that Missouri’s public pension plans had a total of $57.3 billion in unfunded liabilities (which are calculated as current assets minus the net present value of what will need to be paid). If plan investments fail to grow enough to cover promised benefits, then a bill much larger than even $57.3 billion will hang over the budget discussions Missourians have years from now.
So how can we fix this problem? Reforms that help Missouri transition away from plans that promise payments for life and toward plans that incur their costs up front can protect our state from investment risks. Schmitt illustrates this perfectly when he says “Our goal as a state should be to fully fund our obligations as they are incurred instead of putting the burden on the backs of our children and grandchildren.” Policymakers should consider adopting this goal—the sooner, the better.