SEC Investigating RI
WPRI’s Ted Nesi has broken the story that the SEC is looking into Rhode Island’s muni bonds. Nesi has Gen. Treasurer Raimondo’s statement on the matter and also points to a New York Times article on how the SEC is investigating Illinois’ pension funding mechanism, which is similar to Rhode Island’s. Basically, it has to do with reducing the pension liability for future workers:
Earlier this year, Illinois said it had found a way to save billions of dollars. It would slash the pensions of workers it had not yet hired. The real-world savings would not materialize for decades, of course, but thanks to an actuarial trick, the state could start counting the savings this year and use it to help balance its budget….The maneuver, and techniques that have similar effects, are already in use in Rhode Island, Texas, Ohio, Arkansas and a number of other places, allowing those states to harvest savings today by imposing cuts on workers in the future.
Texas saved millions of dollars this year after raising its retirement age for future hires and barring them from counting unused sick leave in their pensions. More savings will appear in coming years. Rhode Island also raised its retirement age for future retirees last year, after being told it could save $90 million in the first year alone.
Basically, politicians took the easy way out (surprise!):
Struggling states and cities need to save money, but they run into legal problems if they tamper with the pensions their current workers are building up year by year. So most places have opted to let current workers and retirees go unscathed. Colorado, Minnesota and South Dakota are the exceptions, dialing back cost-of-living increases for people who have already retired. All three states have reaped meaningful savings right away, and all three are being sued.
Cuts for workers not yet hired do not save much money in the present — but that’s where actuaries can work their magic. They capture the future savings for use today by assuming, in essence, that 100 percent of today’s work force is already earning tomorrow’s skimpier benefits. When used in actuarial calculations, that assumption has a powerful effect. It reduces the amount a government must put into its workers’ pension fund every year.
That saves the government money. But it undermines the pension fund, which must still pay the richer benefits of today’s retirees. And because the calculations are esoteric, it is hard for anyone except a seasoned actuary to see what is going on.