Ryberg: Overextended retirement system costing teachers jobs (the State)

By GREG RYBERG Guest Columnist The State Newspaper
Over the past decade, politicians heaped out generous new benefits to state retirees with no realistic plan to pay for them. The government simply said “yes” and then hoped everything would turn out OK.

Well, it didn’t turn out OK. The State Retirement System, nearly solvent and fully funded in 1999, now carries a $13 billion unfunded actuarial accrued liability and a 37-year amortization period — seven years past the limit for a system that is considered “sound.”

And even these depressing numbers conceal the depth of the problem: They assume that investments will achieve an 8 percent return, which is simply not realistic.

Warren Buffet, in his 2007 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, wrote of an 8 percent return for public pensions that, “Many (advisors) are apparently direct descendants of the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who said: ‘Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”

Michael Bloomberg, billionaire investor and mayor of New York, said that, “It’s overstating it a little bit to say the only one who’s done that well is Bernie Madoff, but 8 percent for a long period of time is not something that very many pension funds have ever achieved.”

The unfunded liability of the system soon will wreak havoc among our other finances. Moody’s and Fitch have announced that they will begin adding unfunded pension liability into their evaluation of state credit ratings. The managing director for public finance at Moody’s said that they are “liabilities that need to be paid out and put stress on your operating budget.”

Moody’s calculates that our unfunded liability more than quadruples our state debt, bringing it to more than 10 percent of our gross state product (13th highest in America), 264 percent of state revenue (fifth highest) and more than 15 percent of personal income (15th highest). And that calculation was made when the liability was just $12 billion.

Both employers and employees make contributions to the Retirement System to fund the benefits, just as occurs in the private sector; this is termed “normal cost.” State employees contribute 6.5 percent of their salary, and their employers — the state agencies — contribute 3.51 percent of the employees’ salaries. All of that, of course, is taxpayer money.

But taxpayers also have to pay for the accrued liability, which is essentially interest on debt. That’s money that buys nothing but time.

For fiscal year 2010, that extra cost adds 6.17 percent to the agency contributions, or more than $660 million. That money will not be spent on teachers and law enforcement personnel or tax cuts. It goes straight into a black hole, and that is what frightens the credit-rating agencies.

More than half of that comes from local agencies and school districts. The state sends a bill, and they ante up. Much of that ante, unfortunately, comes at the expense of classroom teachers.

The Richland County school districts coughed up more than $20 million in 2010 just for the unfunded liability. Since the average total compensation for a Richland County teacher is approximately $50,500, Richland Districts 1 and 2 essentially lost 309 teachers in 2010 alone because of the broken retirement system. Those two districts have blown nearly $60 million on the unfunded liability since 2000.

The Lexington County districts lost the money that would have paid 308 teachers when they were forced to send in $19.6 million to fund the unfunded liability. Lexington districts have handed over more than $56 million since 2000.

And remember, that doesn’t touch the $13 billion. That just keeps us afloat — for this year. Current projections show that over the next decade, taxpayers will have to contribute nearly $8 billion just to keep the system at 30 years of amortization (the limit for a sound system). Not to pay down the debt — just to keep it sound.

Gov. Nikki Haley, like Gov. Mark Sanford before her, recognizes that the time bomb is ticking.

I have filed legislation each year since 2000 to address the growing problem. I have tremendous hope that the General Assembly now has the will to address the problem, and I look forward to working with all interested parties. This process will be painful, but we no longer can kick this can down the road.

Mr. Ryberg, an Aiken Republican who chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, can be reached at gregryberg@scsenate.gov.

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