he housing bubble and subsequent Wall Street collapse wreaked havoc on the nation’s retirement savings, as many pension funds and 401(k) plans suffered losses of 30% or more. State and local governments are now facing huge unfunded pension liabilities, prompting policymakers to scramble for ways to close the gap without slashing payrolls and services. But a new report from the Little Hoover Commission in Sacramento makes a more troubling point: Many state and local government employees have been promised pensions that the public couldn’t have afforded even had there been no crash.
The commission’s analysis of the problem is hotly disputed by union leaders, who contend that the financial woes of pension funds have been overblown. The commission’s recommendations are equally controversial: Among other things, it urges state lawmakers to roll back the future benefits that current public employees can accrue, raise the retirement age and require employees to cover more pension costs. Given that state courts have rejected previous attempts to alter the pensions already promised to current workers, the commission’s recommendation amounts to a Hail Mary pass. Yet it’s one worth throwing.
A bipartisan, independent agency that promotes efficiency in government, the Little Hoover Commission studied the public pension issue for 10 months before issuing its findings Thursday. Much of the 90-page report is devoted to making the case that, to use the commission’s blunt words, “pension costs will crush government.” Without a “miraculous” improvement in the funds’ investments, the commission states, “few government entities — especially at the local level — will be able to absorb the blow without severe cuts to services.”