There is no single cause for the public pension crisis threatening the financial stability of states, counties and local municipalities across the U.S. Instead, its origins more closely resemble an actuarial version of the notorious death by a thousand cuts.
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Fingers of blame can be pointed at self-serving politicians who doled out generous benefits to public employee unions seeking support at the polls in return. Union leaders are accountable, too, accepting short-term perks without seeing the potential long-term harm.
Structural issues have also played an important role, not least the problematic reality that the value of pension fund assets is inextricably tied to the fate of often-volatile stock markets.
Then there are the myriad loopholes and outright scams such as the age-old tactic of public employees loading up on overtime while approaching retirement to artificially goose their final annual payout.
And on and on and on such that the vast majority of state pension plans are underfunded, meaning they don’t have enough assets to cover their current liabilities. An annual report issued earlier this month by Wilshire Consulting found that 96% of 134 state plans examined were underfunded, and that on average those plans had enough assets to cover just 70% of their obligations.
Stop the Bleeding
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In New Jersey, where the state pension plan is underfunded to the tune of $52 billion, according to Governor Chris Christie, there is a movement afoot to stop the bleeding from at least one of those thousand cuts.
In this case, the wound is a loophole in state law (or a scam, depending on who you ask) that allows public employees to retire with a pension from one job then promptly rejoin the government payroll at a full salary while still collecting that pension, a practice known as double-dipping.
"The general public doesn’t feel it’s appropriate and I don’t feel it’s appropriate.”
An exhaustive investigation by the muckraking web site New Jersey Watchdog found that double-dipping is widespread, bipartisan and expensive.
The site’s findings included:
-- 80 retired state police officers who landed other government jobs after retiring are collecting a combined $12.8 million a year, about $7 million in salaries and another $5.8 million in pension payments.
-- 17 county sheriffs and 29 undersheriffs are taking home about $8.3 million a year via double-dipping -- $3.4 million from pensions and $4.9 million in salaries.
-- 45 retired school superintendents collect more than $4 million in pension while working at full salary for the state as interim superintendents.
Most significantly, perhaps, New Jersey Watchdog revealed that 18 double-dipping state legislators, including leadership members from both parties, are being paid $782,000 in combined pensions and salaries.
One southern New Jersey senator, Democrat Fred Madden, receives three separate government checks totaling nearly $250,000: $49,000 in salary for serving in the legislature; $85,272 from the State Police pension; and another $111,578 for his job as a dean at Gloucester County College.
“Ingrained in the System”
Mark Lagerkvist, New Jersey Watchdog’s chief investigative reporter, said those 18 legislators are the primary reason reform efforts have stalled despite a growing outcry by taxpayers.
“The people empowered to change the system are in on the deal,” he said. “It’s so ingrained in the system it’s viewed as an entitlement. They don’t see anything wrong with it.”
Not all of them.
For several years, Republican state senator Jennifer Beck has been a lone voice in the wilderness on the issue of double-dipping. Beck first introduced a bill to ban/reform the practice in 2011 and has introduced similar bills each year since.
“It’s something that needs to be corrected,” she said. “The concept is that when you retire you’re at a point in life where you’re no longer able to work. A pension is designed to support you under those circumstances.”
Double-dipping “erodes the fabric of the pension system and the conceptual basis on which it was founded,” she said.
Beck’s take on double-dipping is more nuanced than most taxpayers’, who tend to view the practice simply as a money-grab by well-connected officials. She concedes that the practice is entirely legal and that state retirees certainly deserve their pensions.
“It’s more complicated than the soundbites,” she said.
Beck even acknowledges the benefits of double-dipping raised by its supporters. Namely that it allows governments to hire experienced employees at a discount because retirees are already receiving a pension and don’t need health benefits, which are covered by their retirement packages. (Although she doesn’t necessarily agree with that take.)
Rather than describing the practice as an outright scam, Beck said it’s a loophole -- “an oversight” -- in the state pension law that allows these workers to start new government jobs often at six-figure salaries while collecting pensions that in many cases approach six figures.
Fix the Loophole
The New Jersey law was supposed to work like the federal Social Security program, which reduces payments to retirees if they go back to work. But that’s not exactly what happened.
The New Jersey statute forbids state workers from retiring with a pension from one government job and then returning to a similar (or the same) job and receiving a salary of more than $15,000. But it doesn’t prevent government workers such as police officers and firemen from retiring and jumping to a different state job that falls under a different pension system and receiving a full salary that will also one day generate a pension.
Beck’s bill would fix the loophole.
What has motivated Beck toward reform is the widespread “perception” that the practice is morally wrong. “It’s an important perception. The general public doesn’t feel it’s appropriate and I don’t feel it’s appropriate.”
Taxpayers, she said, believe it’s unfair for a retired government worker to get paid at another government job while already pulling down a taxpayer funded pension. Plus they are “frustrated” by the sense that retired government workers have an “inside track” on other government jobs, especially with New Jersey’s unemployment rate running higher than the rest of the country.
Beck expressed faith that her fellow legislators will soon see the issue as she does, giving up a potentially lucrative perk by passing legislation to ban double-dipping. “I’d like to think we don’t always act in our own self-interest,” she said. “That sometimes we do things just because it’s the right thing to do.”