How Nevada provides a disincentive for experienced teachers and other employees to continue working

Once again the folks at the Nevada Policy Research Institute have put out a jeremiad lamenting the state’s self-defeating, tax-draining, counter-productive public employee retirement system.

The opinion section of the Sunday newspaper carries an op-ed by Robert Fellner, director of transparency research at NPRI, that points out that the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Nevada provides a powerful disincentive for experienced teachers, school administrators and other public workers to continue working and providing services to taxpayers.

Thinkstock graphic posted with Fellner op-ed online.

For example, if Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky were to continue working to age 60 — instead of retiring next year at age 53 after 30 years on the job as announced — he would forfeit approximately $1.5 million in PERS payments. The same principle, though lesser amounts, applies to our most experienced classroom teachers, leaving Nevada’s youth, who already trail nearly every other state in educational achievement, in the hands of less experienced instructors.

Feller points out that if the state were to opt for a 401(k)-style retirement plan — as in the private sector — there would be an incentive to continue working because retirement benefits would grow every year instead of reaching a maximum after 30 years.

This is something we have been advocating for years. While various proposals have been floated, all have been sunk by the entrenched public employee unions.

In 2011 a report drafted for the NPRI 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.”

A year ago Fellner penned for NPRI “Footprints: How NVPERS, step by step, made Nevada government employees some of the nation’s richest.”

Fellner warned that “should today’s international no-growth economy stumble into the deep financial crisis that many forecasters fear, NVPERS’ fantasy economic forecasts will be replaced by immediate bankruptcy — leaving every Silver State household with a sudden, implicit, $50,000-plus tax liability.”

The report detailed how NVPERS benefits have ratcheted up over the decades by virtue of incremental benefit increases, collective bargaining gains, earlier retirement age, allowing the purchase of years of service, padding base pay with add-ons such as callback, standby, holiday, shift differential, extra duty, hazard and longevity pay, and simple compound interest.

Fellner noted that local government employees have taken advantage of their collective bargaining union contracts and negotiated to have their employers actually pay the employees’ pension contribution, claiming this is done in lieu of a salary increase or in conjunction with a salary decrease — even though local government pay checks rank eighth highest in the nation.

In a report published during the 2015 legislative session, NPRI’s Fellner wrote, “Over the past 20 years, the amount Nevada taxpayers contribute toward public employee retirements has skyrocketed — from $384 million in 1995 to $1.4 billion today. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent after adjusting for both inflation and membership growth.”

 

The giant sucking sound is drowned out by the chirping crickets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Newspaper column: It is long past time to patch the broken public employee retirement system

“You know my rule, Andy,” says a grifter in an O. Henry tale, “that in all my illegitimate inroads against the legal letter of the law the article sold must be existent, visible, producible. In that way and by a careful study of city ordinances and train schedules I have kept out of all trouble with the police that a five dollar bill and a cigar could not square.”

This high-minded adherence to such strictures so as to avoid any comeuppance or accountability might very well be ascribed to our Carson City grifters who for the past 40 years have played a confidence game — otherwise known as the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Nevada, NVPERS to the initiated — and slipped it under the noses of the taxpaying rubes by nickel-and-diming until they can sneak out of town and leave their marks holding the empty bag.

NVPERS was created in 1947. According to statute its purpose is to provide: “A reasonable base income to qualified employees who have been employed by a public employer and whose earning capacity has been removed or has been substantially reduced by age or disability.”

From this safety net for public employees “whose earning capacity has been removed or has been substantially reduced,” NVPERS has gradually, and almost imperceptibly, grown into the richest public employee pension program in the nation, according to the American Enterprise Institute.

By AEI’s calculations Nevada’s public pensions have reached $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. Compare this to the average annual Social Security benefit of $14,220.

For years there have been warnings that the system is unsustainable and could collapse, leaving taxpayers on the hook. Lawmakers have utterly ignored the warnings and have even raised the ante and the risk.

The latest jeremiad on this topic comes curtesy of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank, which recently released “Footprints: How NVPERS, step by step, made Nevada government employees some of the nation’s richest.”

Written by NPRI’s Director of Transparency Research Robert Fellner, the 36-page report warns that “should today’s international no-growth economy stumble into the deep financial crisis that many forecasters fear, NVPERS’ fantasy economic forecasts will be replaced by immediate bankruptcy — leaving every Silver State household with a sudden, implicit, $50,000-plus tax liability.”

The report details how NVPERS benefits have ratcheted up over the decades by virtue of incremental benefit increases, collective bargaining gains, earlier retirement age, allowing the purchase of years of service, padding base pay with add-ons such as callback, standby, holiday, shift differential, extra duty, hazard and longevity pay, and simple compound interest.

Fellner notes that local government employees have taken advantage of their collective bargaining union contracts and negotiated to have their employers actually pay the employees’ pension contribution, claiming this is done in lieu of a salary increase or in conjunction with a salary decrease — even though local government pay checks rank eighth highest in the nation.

As examples of how the system is being gamed, Fellner points to two former fire chiefs from Southern Nevada who retired in their mid-40s and began collecting $100,000-plus annual pensions while working full-time in fire departments in other states.

The major problem with NVPERS — as NPRI and others have pointed out for years, only to be ignored in Carson City — is that it is a defined benefit system. Public employees are contractually guaranteed a percentage of their highest three years of salary, depending on the number of years of employment. Thus many may retire in their 40s and 50s at 75 percent of their working salary — and a few at more than 100 percent of their working salary due to the spiking of those add-ons in later years — and live into their 80s or longer, drawing pensions for more years than they worked.

This means taxpayers decades from now will be paying for benefits approved by current and past lawmakers. Fellner bluntly calls this “intergenerational theft.”

The solution is for Nevada to change to a defined contribution plan — comparable to 401(k) plans used in private industry — for future hires. The employer and employee would each contribute to a fund that would be invested, leaving the taxpayers off the hook should the economy turn sour. This has been offered and rejected.

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: Window on government employee pensions is eye-opening

The Nevada Policy Research Institute has updated its popular transparentnevada.com website, which reports the names and salaries of state and local government employees, with 2015 data.

While the salary data is significant information for taxpayers who want to make sure we are getting our money’s worth, it may be the benefits, particularly retirement benefits, that warrant greatest scrutiny.

Yes, according to Nevada’s own employment records state and local government employees are paid about $10,000 more a year in wages than those in the private sector, but taxpayer-funded pensions for those workers in the Nevada Public Employees’ Retirement System known as PERS, are the richest in the nation, according to research conducted by the American Enterprise Institute.

Robert Fellner, director of transparency research at NPRI, points out in a press release announcing the update at transparentnevada.com that, while the median private employer spends 3 percent of pay on their employees’ retirement accounts, Nevada taxpayers contribute 28 percent of each state and local government employee’s salary toward pensions and 40 percent for police and fire.

“Nevadans can expect higher taxes or service cuts if they are forced to continue paying for retirement benefits that are nearly ten times richer than what they themselves are likely to receive,” Fellner writes. “In 2013 — the most recent year data was available — Nevada’s local governments spent a national-high 9.6 percent of direct general expenditures on retirement costs, nearly quadruple the 2.5 percent national average.”

The government pension program has an unfunded liability of $40 billion.

Fellner’s research turned up one example of just how daunting it is for the average taxpayer to unravel the lucrative pension formula.

A Clark County police officer who retired in 2015 with 30 years on the job was eligible to receive 78 percent of his salary as an annual pension, which would have been $92,000 since his salary was $118,000. Instead, he is scheduled to receive $172,000 a year for life.

This is because PERS, as Fellner explains, counts as salary a variety of additional pay, such as call-back pay, as well as part of the government’s pension contribution, which seems like double dipping.

According to transparentnevada.com, in 2014 there were more than 1,000 Nevada state and local retirees receiving annual pensions in excess of $100,000.

American Enterprise Institute found Nevada full-career PERS retirees fetch the most generous retirement checks of any state in the union — $64,000 a year on average or more than $1.3 million in lifetime benefits. That doesn’t include police and firefighters, 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 a report published during the 2015 legislative session, NPRI’s Fellner wrote, “Over the past 20 years, the amount Nevada taxpayers contribute toward public employee retirements has skyrocketed — from $384 million in 1995 to $1.4 billion today. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent after adjusting for both inflation and membership growth.”

During that session there was a bill pending to rein in this growth in public employee pension cost.

The bill — Assembly Bill 190 — would have changed the current system from 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, to 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 in which a portion of the salary is invested in something like a mutual fund. The amount of the pension depends on how well the investment does and relieves the taxpayer from having to cover any shortfall.

It would not have affected the pensions of current employees and only applied to those hired in the future.

Of course, it died in committee without ever being voted on.

Transparency is good, even when what you are seeing is so eye-opening.

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