$5 Trillion in the Red — Only the Beginning?


The competition is fierce, but perhaps the worst state-level policy proposal that’s been bandied about in recent years would have the “laboratories of democracy” run pension plans for businesses and/or nonprofits that don’t currently offer retirement benefits.

In California, it’s now the law. Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill which, as the Los Angeles Times described it, “requires all California companies with at least five employees to either offer their own retirement savings plan or enroll workers in the new California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program.”

Might the Land of Enchantment be next? AARP New Mexico claims it is “time to start looking at some viable solutions that allow New Mexicans to have a secure retirement.” The editorial page of the Albuquerque Journal wants legislators to “consider what can be done to level the retirement playing field for private sector employees in the state.”

Enter Sen. Martin Heinrich. Yesterday, he introduced the “State Retirement Savings Act,” which “would allow states to create Individual Retirement Account … programs where workers and employees would automatically be enrolled upon hiring to start saving.” The legislation “would give state legislatures the legal authority to build new retirement programs that are custom tailored for each state.”

Yeesh. Maybe before we shove more people into politician-overseen pension funds, it’s worth examining where things stand now. The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Chuck DeVore notes that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System is “grossly underfunded.” Include pensions for teachers and local governments in the Golden State, and the retirement debt “is about $991 billion.”

The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2014, New Mexico’s Public Employees Retirement Association and Educational Retirement Board did not attain positive “net amortization,” and thus failed to reduce their unfunded liabilities. At 67 percent, the share the plans met was just a few percentage points higher than California’s dismal ratio, and among the lowest in the nation.

But wait — it gets worse. Estimates of the national figure for public-pension debt vary, but are usually in the $2 trillion ballpark. However, there is reason to believe the figure is much higher. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew G. Biggs observed in July, if the rules recommended by a recent task force commissioned by the Actuarial Standards Board are adopted, “actuarial valuations for state and local government pensions will report unfunded liabilities of over $5 trillion and funding ratios of just 39 percent.” New Mexico’s unfunded liabilities, currently totaling about $10 billion, would surely be much higher under “market valuation.”

Heinrich’s legislation, and pressure within the state to have government meddle with retirement income in the private sector, warrant strict scrutiny — and severe skepticism.