by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
After several years of steady investment growth and higher contributions from taxpayers, most of America’s public sector pension plans are still awash in red ink.
According to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the states collectively carry more than $1.4 trillion in pension debt—and only four states have at least 90 percent of the assets necessary to meet their long-term obligations to retirees. The Pew paper, which is based on states’ 2016 financial reports, shows that pension debt increased by about $295 billion since the previous year, making 2016 the 15th consecutive year in which state-level pension debt increased.
The really scary part is that pension debt keeps increasing despite the fact that taxpayers’ contributions to state-level pension plans have doubled as a share of state revenue in the past decade. Also worrisome: Pension plans are chasing increasingly risky investments. The gap between returns on safe investments and state pension plan investment assumptions was the highest in decades, the Pew researchers note, leaving pensions more vulnerable to market volatility and raising concerns that another downturn could drive already deeply indebted systems over a cliff.