Senate passes pension bill

The Senate version of the 2016 Omnibus Pension Bill (SF 588) on Thursday passed out of the chamber on a vote of 61-1. Sen. Eric Pratt voted no.

Senate bill author and pension commission vice chair Sen. Sandy Pappas, D-St. Paul, introduced the bill by saying that the state’s pension plans recently conducted studies and found that public employees are living longer, which means that retirees will be collecting pension checks for a longer period of time as well. Pappas said it is a normal part of pension oversight to have to come in and adjust items such as employer and employee contribution rates and retiree cost-of-living adjustments.

Pappas said that the Teachers Retirement Association and the St. Paul Teachers Retirement Fund Association (SPTRFA) brought sustainability plans to the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement (LCPR) that were expensive because they required more from school districts and state agencies. As it became clear that money would not be available, Pappas said, the current bill was scaled back and has no dollars attached to it.

Under the current bill, St. Paul Teachers will increase contributions by 0.5 percent of salary beginning in 2018. A mechanism that would trigger higher COLAs for all public pension fund participants is being eliminated “so nothing is on automatic pilot,” Pappas said. TRA’s amortization period will be extended to June 2046. To avoid statutory COLA increases on Jan. 1, 2017, the current bill calls for the COLA for MSRS members to drop to 1.75 percent for one year, and TRA members’ COLA drops to 1 percent for one year.

These measures save the plans some money now, but the goal is to return next year to discuss further adjustments. “The governor believes this [a comprehensive sustainability package] needs to happen, if not this year then next year,” Pappas said, adding that the stopgap measure provides time to consider what kind of adjustments in school aid and agency budgets will be required to offset increased employer contributions.

Pappas summarized the technical administrative provisions in the bill, which includes lowering the investment return assumption for TRA to 8 percent. The Public Employees Retirement Association and MSRS lowered their investment assumptions last year. Another provision of the bill allows public plans to accept gifts or bequests. Pappas said the bill moving to the House on Friday is the same as hers.

Sen. Pratt, R-Prior Lake, asked Pappas about the origins of the 8 percent investment assumption. Pappas said that the pension funds, their actuaries and boards – as well as the pension commission – consults with the State Board of Investment. Minnesota’s investments have done very well, are well managed, and are designed with a long-term strategy in mind. Pappas said the pension commission felt that lowering the rate was a good cautionary move, though lowering that rate does have the effect of making the funds look like they’re not as well funded.

Pratt said that the assumption is still too high, and that even investment guru Warren Buffett says that over the long term, the market assumption for returns shouldn’t exceed 7 percent. Pratt added that while there have been good years where the return is 15 percent or more, those gains were wiped out during economic downturns. The state should be looking at fairly conservative investments, he said, noting that the prime rate is only 3.25 percent and that no depository is paying more than 1 percent on deposits.

“These plans aren’t sustainable under their current assumptions, and this is one of those assumptions that are still too high,” Pratt said. He added that he is glad the retiree COLA is being dropped to 1 percent for TRA.

Pappas said that with the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation, under 2 percent, LCPR members have been torn about cost-of-living increases for retirees. “In our pension principles, we really believe we need to retain the buying power of the retirees’ paycheck in order to not have it erode” but we realize that the COLA is expensive, she said. She invited Pratt to bring his expertise to the pension commission, and encouraged him to consult with SBI Executive Director Mansco Perry about the investment return issue.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said that large retiree COLAs during boom times in the stock market and the economy “robbed the core” of the pension funds of money that needed to be retained for a rainy day and that legislature was complicit in those decisions. She said there should be a standard that all retirees can count on so that one group of retirees does not get a severe reduction in their COLAs while previous retirees almost double their pensions in a few years. Kiffmeyer said that investment return assumptions have been too high, but the costs to the plans of lowering it shouldn’t be “put on the backs of retirees.” 

Sen. Terri Bonoff, D-Minnetonka, also expressed concern about the 8 percent investment return assumption and said she shares Kiffmeyer’s concerns about keeping promises to retirees. Bonoff said she has been approached by constituents who are investment advisers and they also are concerned that the pensions are underfunded. She asked Pappas for her view about the long-term viability of the state’s pensions.

Pappas said that SBI’s Perry has been quoted as saying that 8 percent is “not unreasonable.” Because of the amount of money the state invests ($65 billion in pension fund assets) and the clout that comes with it, Minnesota is able to get a good rate of return. She added that MSRS is over 85 percent funded, TRA is about 75 percent funded, and St. Paul Teachers is about 74 percent funded. Pappas added that if lawmakers are concerned about the state’s bond rating, additional parts of the original sustainability package can still be acted upon this weekend.

Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville said that the pension systems are unmanageable and that Pratt is correct that it’s dangerous to assume an 8 percent rate of return. “If you drop the rate, projections look bad,” he said. “And not only do we have economic insecurity, now we’ve got an aging population that’s going to put stress on the system.”

Thompson said the legislature should discontinue the defined-benefit program and go to a defined contribution plan such as the 401(k)-type plans found in the private sector. The people who run these pension plans and the investment portfolio do an extremely good job and in good faith, he said, but “the system is just unworkable.”

Pappas responded to Bonoff’s comments by saying that in Minnesota, the percentage of state and local spending on pensions is much less than the national average (about 2 percent in Minnesota vs. 4 percent nationally). Pappas also pointed out to Thompson that transitioning from a defined-benefit pension to a defined-contribution model would cost billions of dollars because benefits would have to continue to be paid out even though the plans lose new contribution revenue.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said the pension commission is nonpartisan and that members take their duties very seriously. Rosen said the current pension bill is a very good compromise made necessary  after the commission “received a sucker punch” in the form of hard-to-stomach mortality studies. “When you do reform in pensions it’s very slow, like trying to turn the Titanic – and you have to do it deliberately and with seriousness and make sure those funds stay viable.” She urged her colleagues to vote for the bill because it’s the right thing to do.

courtesy TRA Communications