States short $1 trillion to fund retiree benefits

chart_pension_funding.top.gifTaxpayers could be on the hook for $1 trillion in pension and retiree health benefits.By Tami Luhby, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Just as they are contending with massive gaps in their operating budgets, states and localities must also deal with a $1 trillion deficit in public employees' retirement benefits' funds, a new report found.

The shortfall amounts to more than $8,800 for every household in the nation, according to the Pew Center on the States, which published its findings Thursday.

States largely got themselves into this mess by failing to make annual contributions while also enhancing benefits, the study found. Now, they are behind by a total $452 billion in their pension accounts and $555 billion in their retiree health funds, as of the end of fiscal 2008, which ended June 30 for most states.

The deficit is likely even more severe because the report did not take into account the crumbling of the stock market in the latter half of 2008. The typical pension plan lost 25% of its value in 2008.

States must find ways to make up these gaps because retiree benefits for public workers are largely guaranteed by union contract. And they are funded through contributions from both employees and state employers, as well as investment returns.

So when gaps appear, states must ask their residents to make up the difference, usually through property tax or income tax hikes.

"Ultimately, taxpayers could face higher taxes and cuts in services," said Stephen Fehr, one of the report's authors. "You can't ignore the problem. It's just going to be more serious budget trouble for states down the road."

To be sure, the bill isn't due all at once and no state is in danger of default. These benefits are paid out over decades. Still, the deficits must be addressed sooner than later or the gaps will simply balloon more.

In the most trouble

The consequences of the shortfall could be severe. It comes at a time when states are wrestling with a cumulative $180 billion budget gap for fiscal 2011.

Eight states are in the most dire shape, according to the Pew report. These include: Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey and Oklahoma.

Two of these states -- Illinois and Kansas -- have less than 60% of the necessary assets on hand to meet their long-term pension obligations.

Only four states -- Florida, New York, Washington and Wisconsin -- had a fully funded system in 2008, down from just over half at the beginning of the decade.

Overall, state pension systems are 84% funded.

Many states have been lax about funding their pension systems, even during more prosperous times earlier this decade. Some 21 states failed to contribute at least 90% of the required amount during the past five years.

Retiree health care and other non-pension benefit accounts are in even worse condition. Only about 5% of their total liabilities are funded. States generally paying these bills as they come due, rather than setting aside money in advance.

Also, some states sweetened their retiree benefits during the 1990s and earlier this decade, reducing employee contributions or providing cost-of-living increases. But they didn't allocate money to pay for these changes.

What's being done

Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, states have begun to act. Fifteen states passed legislation reforming their pension systems in 2009 and 16 are looking at making changes this year.

Since it's tough to make changes to union contracts, most states apply the new rules to incoming employees only.

Several states, including Kentucky, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Texas, have reduced benefits offered to new employees or raised the retirement age. Some are also asking workers to contribute more to their pension accounts or retiree health benefits. And a few have created 401(k) style plans to go alongside their traditional pensions.

In Nevada, for instance, those hired in 2010 and beyond will have to wait until age 62 to retire, instead of age 60. They will also have a less generous funding formula: Their years of service will be multiplied by 2.5, rather than 2.67, to derive the percentage of salary being replaced by pension benefits.

In New York, new hires can't retire until age 62, instead of age 55, and they will have to work for 10 years instead of five.

"A growing number of policy makers recognize that their states' fiscal health depends on how well they manage the bill coming due for public sector retirement benefits," said Susan Urahn, the center's managing director. "We are seeing more and more states explore policy reforms aimed at putting their systems on stronger fiscal footing."

The study looked at 231 state-administered pension plans and 159 state-administered retiree health care and other non-pension benefit plans, which include some localities' and teacher plans. To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 18,081.81 57.64 0.32%
Nasdaq 4,786.71 21.29 0.45%
S&P 500 2,087.05 4.88 0.23%
Treasuries 2.29 0.03 1.51%
Data as of Dec 24
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 18.04 0.12 0.64%
Gilead Sciences Inc 92.34 2.89 3.23%
General Electric Co 25.71 -0.17 -0.66%
Cisco Systems Inc 28.57 0.32 1.13%
Apple Inc 112.22 -0.32 -0.28%
Data as of Dec 24

Sections

JetBlue is offering to fly police to New York for the funeral of slain NYPD officers and is working to have the family of one of the officers flown in from overseas. More

Many Americans are buying more gifts -- and more expensive gifts -- for Christmas. That's squeezing some in the middle class. More

Marriott's plan to block Wi-Fi hotspots in its hotels is being opposed by Google and Microsoft. More

According to data from Google Trends and GrubHub, Chinese food remains the most popular type of food order on Christmas. More

If you're looking to sell your holiday gift cards for cold hard cash... there's an app for that. More

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.