Newspaper column: Lawmakers must finally address public worker retirement reform

Gov. Sandoval gives State of the State speech. (R-J photo)

Gov. Sandoval gives State of the State speech. (R-J photo)

In his State of the State speech this past week Gov. Brian Sandoval tossed out tax money like trinkets and candy from a Mardi Gras parade float — a couple million here for this or that education program, a few million there for a veterans’ home, millions for a medical school, more millions for an engineering school and pay raises for state employees.

“This session, my budget includes a 4 percent cost of living adjustment and increased funding for health benefits to recognize the shared sacrifice and dedication of our state employees,” the smiling governor said about his spending proposal for the coming two years.

Overall, Sandoval proposed a 10 percent increase in the general fund portion of the state budget, even though the cost of living increase for 2016 was only 2 percent.

What the governor did not address was how the taxpayers are going to pay for the commensurately higher retirement pensions that are tied to the salaries of those state employees.

Nor did he take note of the fact his proposed budget — total budget, not just the general fund — is 49 percent higher than the total budget he proposed when he first took office, while over the past decade the Nevada median household income has fallen 17 percent.

A part of the growth in state government spending has been due to burgeoning pensions for state employees, who upon retirement are guaranteed a percentage of their highest salary level — which officially is 70 percent after 25 years, but can often top 100 percent after various pay add-ons and gimmicks are employed. Public employees in Nevada can retire in their 40s and get paid more in retirement than they were paid for actually working.

In 2008 the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce called on the Legislature to change public employee retirement benefits from the current direct benefit plan to a direct contribution plan, similar to a 401(k), because the expenditures were growing at an unsustainable pace.

In 2011 a report drafted for the Nevada Policy Research Institute by Andrew Biggs, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute, concluded the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System is vastly underfunded by more than $40 billion.

“What people don’t realize,” Biggs said to a luncheon audience back then, “is your typical public sector pension plan is a lot more generous than what a typical person is going to get in the private sector. Let’s just take a person and run their wages through what they would get from PERS versus what they could get from a typical 401(k) plan combined with Social Security, because public employees here don’t participate in Social Security. They both pay the same amount on average. The total contribution is about the same, but the benefits for someone under PERS — for a full career employee — is somewhere around 50 percent higher.”

In 2015 Reno Republican Assemblyman Randy Kirner introduced Assembly Bill 190, which called for reforming PERS, which at the time was costing nearly $15,000 per Nevadan per year and growing.

The changes Kirner proposed would have applied to future state and local government workers and not current ones.

AB190 would have introduced a hybrid — part defined benefit, part defined contribution.

The bill also tied the minimum retirement age for receiving full benefits to that allowed under Social Security, though police officers and firefighters would be able to retire with full benefits 10 years earlier.

Kirner argued his bill would have a minimal impact on taxpayers, but the PERS administration claimed it would cost millions to implement. Kirner withdrew the bill so the funding could be studied and he could re-introduce it again this year, but Kirner decided to not seek re-election.

Instead, state Controller Ron Knecht has offered a bill nearly identical to Kirner’s, but it is questionable whether it will get much of a hearing before a Legislature that is now comprised of majority Democrats in both chambers.

This past summer NPRI’s Director of Transparency Research Robert Fellner released a 36-page report warning that if the economy stumbles the PERS “fantasy economic forecasts will be replaced by immediate bankruptcy — leaving every Silver State household with a sudden, implicit, $50,000-plus tax liability.”

Nevada lawmakers have been kicking this can down the road so long it is now a 55-gallon drum ready to explode.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: Lawmakers must reform public employee retirement system

Most of the blather coming out of Carson City this legislative session has been about the various means that can be employed to tap more tax revenue from the citizens. But finally someone has introduced a bill that would curb the state’s profligate spending.

This past week Republican Assemblyman Randy Kirner of Reno introduced Assembly Bill 190, which calls for reforming the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS), which under government voodoo accounting methods has an unfunded liability of $12.5 billion, but under the accounting methods the rest of us must use the liability is actually more than $40 billion — nearly $15,000 per capita and growing.

The changes Kirner proposes would apply to state and local government workers hired after July 1, 2016, leaving unchanged the benefits promised to current employees and retirees. “The bill protects people that are in PERS today,” Kirner told reporters. “A promise made is a promise kept.”

Currently the system is a 100 percent defined benefit program, in which the retirement benefit is calculated based on years of service and level of pay of the employee at retirement, regardless of the state of the economy.

Randy Kirner

AB190 would introduce a hybrid — part defined benefit, part defined contribution. A defined contribution plan is similar to the 401(k) programs used primarily by the private sector. Under this system typically a certain percent of the employee’s salary is invested in something like a mutual fund and the retiree benefit depends on the amount contributed and how well the investments perform. The taxpayer has no obligation to make up any difference on that part of a hybrid retirement plan. Defined contribution plans are also are more easily portable to another job or retirement system.

Kirner’s bill also would end the practice of allowing government workers to purchase up to five years of retirement credit and retire at 70 percent of highest pay after only 25 years on the job.

The bill also ties the minimum retirement age for receiving full benefits to that allowed under the Social Security Act, meaning retirees would collect full benefits for far fewer years, in many cases decades fewer. Police officers and firefighters would be able to retire with full benefits 10 years earlier.

Further, the bill requires a certain level of contributions toward retirement to come from both the employer and the employee. It bars public employee unions from using collective bargaining to increase the amount of contribution from the employer, a practice that over years has allowed some government workers to contribute nothing in lieu of higher raises.

Currently, according to research conducted at the American Enterprise Institute, Nevada full-career PERS retirees fetch the most generous retirement checks of any state in the union — $64,000 a year or more than $1.3 million in lifetime benefits. That doesn’t include public-safety workers, such as firefighters and police, who can retire earlier and generally have higher salaries.

In comparison, the average Social Security recipient gets $15,500 a year after being on the job decades longer.

In the 2013 legislative session Kirner introduced a very similar bill. It garnered no discussion and no vote was taken in the Democrat-controlled session. Assembly Bill 342 died without a whimper in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. Whether it will fare any better under a Republican-controlled Legislature remains to be seen.

We call on Nevada’s lawmakers to give AB190 a fair hearing and give taxpayers a break, while treating public employees in a manner similar to those in the private sector. In fact, we would suggest that future public employees could simply be enrolled in Social Security.

A version of this editorial appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record.

No fingerprints on the late, unlamented bill to reform public employee pensions

A year ago I wrote about how actuarially unsound the Nevada public employees pension system is and rhetorically asked whether anyone would have the courage to file a bill draft and weather the firestorm of the public unions.

Randy Kirner

Well, Republican Reno Assemblyman Randy Kirner introduced just such a bill, but there was no firestorm, not even a discussion and certainly not a vote. Assembly Bill 342 died without a whimper in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

Though the Review-Journal account of the demise of the bill failed to offer the Clue-like dénouement: “It was Ms. Carlton in the Ways and Means Committee room with an axe,” all the circumstantial evidence points this way.

In the Nevada Legislature all lawmakers are equal, except some are more equal than others, namely committee chairs such as Maggie Carlton, D-Unions, chair of Ways and Means, who can send a bill to Fiddler’s Green without having to answer to anyone.

You see:

But you gotta play by Nevada rules
Forget about da tings you learned in school
We use a different box of tools
And you gotta play by Nevada rules

And the No. 1 Rule is The House always wins, and in this case The House is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the public employee unions.

Maggie Carlton

Kirner’s bill would have created a hybrid retirement program for new employees hired after July 1, 2014. It would be a half defined-benefit and half defined-contribution plan. It included a cap on annual benefits and a prohibition against workers buying years of service credit. This little scam allows some public employees to work for 25 years, purchase five years of service credits, and retire at the age of 45 with 75 percent of their top pay adjusted for inflation for life.

The unfunded liability for the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS), for which the taxpayers are eventually on the hook, is officially $11.2 billion.

A study a year ago by Andrew Biggs, an American Enterprise Institute resident scholar, found that by using economist-preferred fair-market evaluations the number is closer to $41 billion. Annual contributions to cover costs and amortization, Biggs says, would be $5.8 billion. The state’s annual general fund is only $3 billion.

Though this unfunded liability has grown by $1.2 billion over the past two years, and that’s the “official” figure, Gov. Brian Sandoval has said he would not seek to fix the problem this year but support still another independent study, which, of course, will not be completed by the end of the session.

Here is how Clark County’s former county manager, Thom Reilly, explains the problem: