By their own estimates, state governments have accrued more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars in pension debt. When combined with municipal pension debt, conservative estimates of the total state and local unfunded liability top $1 trillion. While the global financial crisis and the recession that followed are partially to blame for this huge run-up in debt, structural problems with the traditional defined benefit system and irresponsible policy decisions are also culprits.
Annual pension payments were on the rise well before financial markets took a turn for the worse in the fall of 2008. In fact, pension costs have been increasing almost universally since the tech bubble burst in the early 2000s signaling the end of the historic run-up of equity prices that occurred through the 1990s.Given that pension systems rely on investment returns to fund the majority of promised worker benefits, pension costs rise when the economy underperforms. Thus, recent pension cost increases have coincided with sharp declines in tax revenues that followed the financial crisis. This has put immense stress not only on state and local budgets, but also on employee wages and benefits.
In the wake of rising pension costs and stagnant or declining budgets, many policymakers have questioned the sustainability of the current system. The accumulated pension debt will take decades to pay off (most states spread debt payments across 30 or more years), increasing cost in the medium- to long-term and leaving plans and worker benefits vulnerable to another downturn. In light of this challenging fiscal situation, many jurisdictions have looked to reform their retirement savings systems. The majority have maintained the traditional defined benefit structure, cutting benefits primarily for new workers, but in some cases for current employees and retirees as well. While these efforts reduce the cost of benefits, they do not address the root of the problem because they maintain the core structure that allowed the pension debt to grow so precipitously in the first place. Other more ambitious jurisdictions have sought to engage in comprehensive reform that will not just cut cost, but will also definitively fix the system, protecting workers and taxpayers alike.
As policymakers have considered reforms, many concerns have been raised about transitions to different retirement savings systems. Opponents of reform have sought to derail these efforts by, among other things, claiming that any transition from the status quo would result in significant, unforeseen costs. This paper will briefly describe the major "transition cost" arguments and will explain why those arguments do not survive careful analysis.