The Maryland Public Policy Institute
It would be nice if the looming pension crisis that’s all over the news these days were only a federal or state issue. But the kind of underfunding and overspending that has already forced several counties around the nation to declare bankruptcy is one that faces every county in Maryland as well.
So many expensive promises, so little tax revenue to spare in satisfying them all, and so many government employees who just want what we told them they would get. How would you feel if your employer suddenly told you he couldn’t afford to contribute to your retirement plan?
Debating about whether 7.75 percent is a realistic anticipated rate of return is losing sight of the forest for the trees. We are way beyond easy fixes like revising our estimates downward and simply contributing a little more each year. Taken together, Maryland counties already spent $1.3 billion to fund pensions in 2011.
That’s $1.3 billion that the counties don’t have to spend on roads, schools and pretty much anything else. And it doesn’t include the $700 million set aside for “Other Post-Employment Benefits,” or OPEB.
If an additional $700 million expense on top of annual pension costs doesn’t scare you, it should. Because it’s less than half of what our counties — by their own calculations — should have spent on OPEB last year. But, because they don’t have the money, they spent what they could and passed the burden on to next year. Or maybe the year after that.
Baltimore County alone spent $439 million last year on pensions and OPEB. Montgomery County spent $284 million. But they should have spent more than $600 million and $478 million, respectively.
In fact, it’s actually shortchanging OPEB that we should really be worried about. While it is true that our pension investments are, on average, only 76 percent of what they need to be, our OPEB investments are practically nonexistent.
On average, unfunded OPEB liabilities exceed 90 percent in the vast majority of counties in Maryland. Seven counties have unfunded liabilities above 99 percent, including Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties.
Every year, the required contributions to OPEB funds grow while the money that counties have to devote to the funds remains constant or shrinks. We can barely keep up with funding benefits for current retirees, let alone set aside money for future ones. This procrastination hurts government retirees as well as wage earners in the private sector that will have to pick up the bill later — with interest.
I’m sure, if the choice were given to us, we would all choose generous pension/benefit plans that guaranteed us a comfortable retirement. And if we had unions as powerful as the teachers’ or AFSCME to go to bat for us, we would do all we could to hold onto those plans.
But it’s time to get real. Maryland counties cannot afford retirement plans like this for much longer before they will consume the entirety of most county budgets, precluding spending on anything that matters to the 80 percent of us who don’t work for the government.
Defined contribution plans are good enough for the private sector. We can make them work in the public sector as well. It’s a much better choice than bankruptcy or bailouts.