The Richmond Register

June 1, 2013

Squawking about pension reform doesn’t make it so

By Jim Waters
Bluegrass Institute

FRANKFORT — Recently, I was a panelist on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight” program about the commonwealth’s public-pension crisis.

Much of the discussion reminded me of an annoying rhetorical tactic generally reserved for parrots, but often employed by cheerleaders for bigger, more -costly government: repeating the same nonsense over and over until viewers cave to the pure monotony.

For instance, liberals squawk that the state’s $31 billion in unfunded pension liabilities is not a public-pension issue at all, but rather a matter of deficient funding. In fact, one fellow “Kentucky Tonight” panelist spouted the need for “revenue enhancement” – code language for “tax increase” – no less than five separate times on the same program.

Never mind the fact that the Federation of Tax Administrators report that Kentucky ranks No. 13 in the nation for tax burden as a percentage ofpersonal income, and No. 9 for spending as a percentage of Gross State Product. Some believe that if Frankfort would only remove even more resources from (raise taxes on) the private sector, all of our public-pension woes would be solved.

But would they? Frankfort actually requires by law that the County Employee Retirement System (CERS), one of five such systems in Kentucky, be fully funded according to the state’s actuarial standards.

Yet as fellow panelist Bryan Sunderland of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce pointed out on the KET program, the County Employees Retirement System today finds itself in a $4.9 billion hole – despite the fact that local governments have made their full payments into the system for decades.

There must be more to reforming Kentucky’s public-pension systems than simply throwing more money at them – which is about all that was accomplished by Senate Bill 2 during this year’s legislative session.

After its passage, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, proclaimed significant pension reform had been accomplished.

“History will remember what we did here during the 2013 session of the General Assembly,” Thayer said.

That’s pretty high praise for a bill that raises taxes and guarantees a rate of return on invested retirement funds no matter how the economy performs, isn’t it?

John-Mark Hack, who’s campaigning for the 56th Kentucky House District seat being vacated by Carl Rollins of Midway, is more accurate in his description of the overhyped bill: “lipstick on a pig.”

From whatever angle one looks, there are several reasons why SB 2 did not put our pension system on the road to recovery: It does nothing to make the public-pension system transparent to taxpayers.

Few politicians openly oppose making public-pension information available to the taxpayers who fund it. Yet by filing bills and then refusing to push them – as happened to transparency legislation during this year’s General Assembly session – information about who collects, how many pensions they get and the size of those checks remains among Kentucky’s best-kept secrets.

It does not significantly reduce the risk to taxpayers posed by public-pension liabilities.

While new employees will be placed on a hybrid cash plan, they are guaranteed a 4-percent return on their invested retirement funds. How many taxpayers who work in the private sector but are forced to fund this plan receive such assurances?

It does nothing to prevent the “spiking” of salaries at the end of public careers.

“Spiking” gives some government employees sizable pay boosts at the end of their tenure just to jack up retirement packages. It happens in Frankfort all the time.

It won’t result in current employees contributing more toward their pension benefits.

Instead, it will be largely more of the same, at least for the foreseeable future: passing the fiscal burden of older generations onto our children and grandchildren.

Is that the kind of history we want to make?