Letting the Unions Win the Lottery

I have to admit that NEA head Bob Walsh’s proposal to give the public sector pension system “equity” from the state lottery instead of this year’s cash contribution confused me. Most prominently, I don’t see how a government that habitually spends hundreds of millions of dollars over its revenue can be presumed to need a one-year fix, even if the economy were to right itself within the three to four years that Walsh predicts. Second most prominently, Bob doesn’t explain why the pensioners would want an asset yielding cash returns this year at a fraction of the cash that they were expecting.
Anchor Rising readers have the advantage that one of Walsh’s numbers should look familiar: The 8.25% that he puts forward as his “conservative expected return” is precisely the figure that inspired so much discussion ’round here. The key to his whole scheme, in other words, is to determine the percentage of the lottery that would be given to the pension system in lieu of this year’s \$243 million payment by calculating backwards from the “expected” return that the pension system requires in order to be solvent.
If the state were to put \$243 million into the account, that money would have to generate a \$20 million return (in a slow economy) for the pension scheme to work, so Walsh is requesting \$20 million from next year’s lottery revenue and calling that 8.25% of the pensions “equity.” One could pick just about any number, suggesting, for example, that the projected \$365 million in total lottery revenue really represents only a 3% of a total value (we’re assuming) of \$12 billion, making the pension’s \$243 million just 2% equity, with a projected return of \$4 million, instead of \$20 million.
But we could run this formula all evening. The salient question is, accepting Walsh’s proposal, what happens next year. The state could resume cash payments, or it could give the pension system another chunk of lottery equity. Me, I’d wager that Walsh would, at that time, recalculate the value of the lottery such that his union members still receive their 8.25% return (plus, of course, the percentage already covered by this year’s revenue). The one certainty is that the revenue coming into the state would diminish each year this method is used.
Another certainty is that those who control the pension system would be able to divest themselves of this lottery equity, should things turn around such that other investments would yield better returns. Again, I’d wager that the unions would turn to the state to buy back the equity at more than its value.
It’s a clever ploy, buried beneath the confusion of Walsh’s “sound financial principles,” and treating it all as if it were found money. The money is not “hidden” in the system, though. It’s our money, and it’s under the control of our representatives, both of which make it as a shiny thing to Walsh’s searching eye.

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Bob Walsh
15 years ago

Perhaps the many folks who have written about my proposal would have been better served to have actually read it and then taken the time to do some research before commenting. As to the valuation of the lottery, an 8.25% return values the lottery as an entity at just over 12 times next years expected earnings. The S & P 500 is in the 15 x range, and gambling stocks, or gaming stocks, as they are now called, are in the 19 to 20 X range. My valuation was deliberately conservative, and intentionally matched the expected return of our state pension system since that was the entity best suited to receive a portion of the asset while keeping it an in-house transaction. A piece of the equity could be sold just as easily, but the fees would not be insignificant and future gains in in the underlying value of the asset would not benefit the state in any way. To claim that the proposal had anything else to do with the pension system is false – the full flexibility inherent in a cash contribution from the state is always preferable for the pension system. At the level I suggested, however, the risk was reasonable at the valuation level I suggested, with upside potential in both future revenue growth (threats of bankruptcy notwithstanding) and a higher market valuation if the lottery were ever actually sold. If we sold the lottery in its entirety, the valuation would likely be in excess of the unfunded pension liability, and using the proceeds of such a sale to fully fund the pension would give the state a net positive cash flow as the combined management contribution would drop more that the expected cash flow from the lottery, and gambling would never again be part of… Read more »

Mario
15 years ago

If you really wanted to make a partial sale scheme like this work (and, of course, I’m in full agreement that we shouldn’t be trying), you could simply hold an IPO for a small amount of the lottery, so that the state would have quick access to a market-based valuation if it ever wanted to trade additional stock away. This could actually have a number of benefits beyond the initial cash infusion. First, the reporting requirements and shareholder scrutiny might make this worth doing on its own by making the lottery a better-run company. Second, it would prevent certain unscrupulous public officials from simply giving parts of the state’s holdings to their friends at a discount, as we would at all times have a verifiable value. Third, this would also boost the value to potential minority shareholders, negating the bulk of my RIF criticism (which, in essence, was that beyond being a bad idea for the state it would be a bad deal for the pension system at the proposed price).
Oh, and Bob, I never thought I’d actually see someone ask for more information so that they could engage in logical fallacies; usually such people are quite comfortable knowing less of which they speak. Anyway, the background and biases of the speaker have no relation to the value of their comments. For instance, basing their opinions on your background, one might have been forgiven for assuming that this would have been a good deal for the pension system, or, at a minimum, a good deal for the state, given that you are a Rhode Islander. To propose a bad deal for both, though? I never would have guessed.

15 years ago

Bob,
I’m sure you understand that your Projo op-ed will be read more broadly than your proposal document, so if I am unable to comment on your proposal based on your explanation in the newspaper, imagine the confusion among the general public.
I’ve no doubt that your valuation was “deliberately conservative”; the way you’ve constructed your calculations yields a better return for the pension the more “conservative” you are. If the value is 20 times projected earnings, the pension’s \$243 million would translate to 3.3% equity, with a projected return of about \$12 million — again, less than your required \$20 million.
As for the length of our downturn: I don’t see on what grounds you believe your solution gives us even two-to-three years of leeway. The truth is that we’ll “be back in the same boat as today” next year (or, more likely, in the fall when we “discover” that the current projections and savings are so much smoke and mirrors). You didn’t answer my question: what then?

George Elbow
15 years ago

Bob Walsh, You say: “If the economy in Rhode Island does not recover in the next two to three years as projected, we would be back in the same boat as today”. You are dead WRONG. In fact, if the economy doesn’t recover, we’ll be in far worse shape as a result of your plan / “idea” because we will have continued unsustainable SPENDING on programs that we can NOT afford, putting us further into debt. To use your “boat” analogy, we’ll be in a boat that will have taken on three more years of water, that will be on the verge of capsizing. But alas, the boat you are most concerned with, the SS Pension Fund, will have remained afloat. With all due respect, your plan does nothing more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titantic. Worse, it cuts loose a few life boats. Let’s not get tangled up in the various assumptions and fancy “sound financial principals”, which may fool some fools. The assumptions are simply details to be used in sizing the transaction. Let’s first strip away the BS and focus on the basic concept of the transaction in a manner that people can understand. Then, if we agree with the concept (which we won’t), we can move to discussing / debating the details that impact the size. In simple terms, your proposal is nothing more than a “refinancing” of obligations,wrapped in fancy terms. Unfortunately, in an effort to obtain broad support using the Union techniques of appealing to other constituents who have their hands out (as recently reported and described in the Projo), you have added a diabolical twist by continuing Spending at the Unsustainable levels that have brought us \$400m+ deficits, despite some of the highest taxes in the nation. Bob, correct me if… Read more »

Tom W
15 years ago

Well said, Mr. Elbow.
Mr. Walsh’s proposal is reminiscent of what Congressional Democrats started in the early 1990’s (under Senator Mitchell, as I recall), that is, the “rich should pay their fair share” mantra.
In so doing, and I’m sure deliberately on their part, they and their sycophants in the “mainstream media” shifted the whole debate from the Reagan era’s “how much should be be spending on government?” to “who’s gonna pay for government?”
The whole question of the size and scope of government disappeared, displaced by a debate over tax rates (which the Democrats knew would always be lost by whoever they characterized as “rich” for ultimately that is a minority).
Establishing the premise of the debate (such as avoiding the real underlying issues) can be the first victory for one side.
What Mr. Walsh is attempting here is the same thing – attempting to shift the debate away from the underlying and fundamental issue, i.e., the size and scope of the existing pension system – and having the debate limited to who / how do we pay for the status quo pension system.

15 years ago

George,
Just to clarify Walsh’s plan: I don’t believe it involves a third-party lender. Rather, what he’s proposing is that, instead of giving the pension system a cash contribution that it can invest elsewhere, the state gives the pension system a percentage ownership of the lottery in an amount equal to the contribution.
The pension system, in other words, would become the holder of the “equity.” It isn’t the state leveraging its own equity in the lottery to finance its payment to the pension system.

George Elbow
15 years ago

Justin, Thanks. However, I understand perfectly what Bob Walsh is proposing. He is essentially securitizing the future cash flows of the Lottery. The problem is that those future cash flows are already spoken for. My comments & description of his plan in terms of “borrowing” is an attempt to better explain what is happening in reality. I guess I failed :). People understand going to the bank to borrow money (e.g. take out a mortgage) based on the expectation that their paychecks will support the repayment of that mortgage. Just because they walk away with a big fat check in their hand does NOT mean they have “found money” so that they can reapply their paycheck to other spending. They still have an obligation to repay the Bank loan. Said differently, if I already have a mortgage based on my ability to repay, which is based on the future cash flows from my paycheck, it is disingeneous to say I can go out and borrow another chunk of change based on those same cash flows that are already spoken for (or in Walsh’s terms, “sell” the equity in my already spoken for paychecks / cash flows). Heck, why don’t we take Bob’s idea to the extreme and securitize ALL of the State’s future cash flows? Let’s call all of our future tax revenues an “unrealized ASSET” and sell some or all of the equity in that asset today and then SPEND all those “sale” proceeds in the current year? Woops, we’ll have a problem as we won’t have any “revenues” next year (cuz we sold them) to pay for next year’s spending. The revenues coming in next year will have to be turned over to the folks that purchased them this year (i.e. we borrowed this year against next year’s… Read more »

Bob Walsh
15 years ago

Mr. Elbow does not understand my proposal at all, nor does he seem interested in understanding it, but since he is a fictional character with no obvious seat at the table for any of these discussions, it does not matter. On the other hand, he may have a hidden agenda, and for all we know, his real job could be to assist Twin River in negotiating a better deal for itself to the detriment of the state, and this idea could be seen as a roadblock to that objective.
I am satisfied that those in a position to make a decision have the preliminary information they need, and if the proposal is pursued to completion, the details will be scrutinized and reported. Further discussion here does not seem to be particularly meaningful or productive, because at this point, you either get it or you don’t (or you have another agenda.)
Tune in during the November revenue estimates for more on this issue . . .

15 years ago

I hear in your comment the presumptions of the past, Mr. Walsh. Yes, by all means, bide your time until the inevitable recalibration in November.
There are two paths from here: one the painful way out, one the painful way toward deeper calamity. In fora such as this it will be determined whether enough followers of the old way recognize the insanity of political habit to turn toward the exit, and I’ve little doubt that your disinterest in defending your idea to the commons will weigh in their considerations.
Either we get it, or we don’t, as you say, and now all that remains to the manipulators is power and politics.

George Elbow
15 years ago

rhody
15 years ago

I don’ understand why unions are a part of this discussion at all. Giving up part of a healthy revenue stream is just bad economics, no matter which side od the debate you’re on, whether it’s a union guy or the governor’s office proposing this.

Editor
15 years ago

As to the allocation of official power, that’s correct, Rhody. Unions and other special interests can make all manner of proposals. But our elected officials (the G.A., usually) just have to say, “sorry, it’s not in the best interest of the state” and that’s the end of it.

Frank
15 years ago

No one ducks back into his hole quicker than “Punxsutawney Bob” Walsh when no one agrees with him, which at AR is almost always because most here happen to be able to think for themselves. Of course as he is sliding back down into his den he always manages to throw out a few insults to those who have challenged him. At least he’s stopped trying to give everybody “time outs”. I wonder what his next gimmick might be as he tries to defend the indefensible.
Nice work Mr. Elbow.

rhody
15 years ago

If unions were that all-powerful, R.I. voters would’ve approved the Marriott casino in ’06 by a mile. The fact that it was defeated, even with huge Democratic turnout, shows that unions are not nearly as powerful as their foes blow them up to be.