States Test Whether Public Pension Benefits Given Can Be Taken Away

By: - August 10, 2010 12:00 am


Photo illustration by Danny Dougherty, Stateline

State legislators are beginning to challenge one of the ironclad tenets of public pension policy:  that states cannot legally reduce pension benefits for current and future retirees.

Lawmakers in Colorado, Minnesota and South Dakota voted earlier this year to limit cost-of-living increases they previously had promised to thousands of current and future retirees, who courts historically have protected from benefit reductions. Not surprisingly, retirees in each state have filed lawsuits asking judges to restore their annual benefit increases to what they were previously.

Lawmakers, state retirement systems, public employee unions and others in the pension policy arena are closely watching the outcome of the legal challenges. If the courts do not reinstate the retirees’ benefits, a flood of states could follow the lead of Colorado, Minnesota and South Dakota. The reverse also would be true. “If the plaintiffs are successful, it may discourage legislators in other states from attempting to diminish benefits,” says Keith Brainard, research director at the National Association of State Retirement Administrators.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie , among other officials, favor scaling back pension benefits already promised to current employees and retirees. And a  lively debate on the issue is underway in Illinois , where lawmakers reduced the cost-of-living adjustment for newly hired workers. Interest is keen everywhere: Lawmakers from around the country packed a session on modifying public pension benefits at the recent annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Louisville.

Up to now, states trying to trim the rising cost of worker retirement benefits have taken the legally safer — and politically easier — approach of targeting benefit cuts at newly hired employees. Steps states have taken this year include increasing the amount employees contribute toward their own pensions, raising the retirement age and adjusting the formula upon which benefits are based.

But many state lawmakers and pension administrators have concluded that cutting benefits for new employees alone will not save enough money in the short term to keep pension plans solvent over time. So they are searching for ways to zero in on the benefits of current retirees and employees.

Colorado lawmakers, facing projections showing the state’s pension system would run out of money within 30 years, approved a package of benefit reductions that lowered the annual 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase for retirees in 2010 to zero. In future years, the increase will be set at 2 percent, barring another sharp decline in investments.  If the changes stand, the average retiree would lose more than ,000 in benefits over the next 20 years, the retirees say in court papers.

South Dakota reduced the cost-of-living increase from 3.1 percent to 2.1 percent this year; future-year amounts will be tied to how well the system’s investments perform in the market. Minnesota eliminated a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase and set it at between 1 and 2 percent for its different employee pension funds.

Case law and state constitutions

History is on the employees’ side. State statutes, constitutions and case law consistently define a public pension as a contract between the state and its employees that cannot be impaired. For example, Alaska’s state constitution makes it clear that “membership in employee retirement systems of the state or its political subdivisions shall constitute a contractual relationship. Accrued benefits of these systems may not be diminished or impaired.” Eight other states protect workers in their constitutions. They are Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New Mexico, New York and Texas.

In states without constitutional guarantees — Colorado, Minnesota and South Dakota fall into this category –  statutes and court cases consider retirement benefits an unbreakable contract between the state and workers. That same protection is in the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says: “No state shall … pass any … law impairing the obligations of contracts.”

Courts have determined that cost-of-living increases, which keep pension income on pace with inflation, are part of a worker’s benefits that cannot be diminished. (Generally, increasing benefits faces no legal hurdles.) The principle of safeguarding the purchasing power of pension income through a cost-of-living adjustment is well established. Social Security, the federal government’s retirement program, instituted automatic annual cost-of-living increases in 1975. The amount of the increase has averaged about 3.3 percent a year, although for the first time in 2010, there was no increase because the consumer price index did not rise.

The Colorado, Minnesota and South Dakota lawmakers are hoping that the courts will agree that the current financial turmoil facing states imperils public pension systems as never before and calls for a new approach. If legislatures are not permitted to cut retirement costs now, the argument goes, the ability of the public pension systems to pay future benefits will be jeopardized.

“If we don’t reduce these automatic pension increases, the entire fund is poised to go bankrupt,” Republican Josh Penry, minority leader of the Colorado state Senate, told the Denver Post . “Think United [Airlines]. Think GM. That didn’t work out well for the company or the retirees.”

Attorneys for the states say in court filings that limiting cost-of-living increases was justified, and actuarily necessary.  “There can be no dispute that preserving the solvency of PERA [The Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association] is a legitimate governmental interest,” Colorado officials argue. Minnesota’s pension legislation “was reasonable and necessary to maintain and restore the financial stability of Minnesota’s public pension plans,” say the state’s pleadings. 

Managing market swings

Although Colorado lawmakers and state pension officials blame much of the retirement fund’s current financial troubles on investment losses suffered during the 2007-09 recession — the median decline for funds nationally was 25 percent in 2008 — the truth is that Colorado lawmakers failed to make their annually required contributions to state pension funds in good times and bad. They also boosted retiree benefits without considering future costs.

Colorado’s pension fund was fully funded in 2000. Eight years later, before the recession hit, Colorado fell to 70-percent funded and was heading down further, according to a report released in February by the Pew Center on the States, which publishes Stateline . Most pension specialists recommend a funding level of 80 percent or higher.

Minnesota lawmakers also slid on their pension fund payments. Their pension system’s funding level dropped from 101 percent in 1999 to 81 percent in 2008.

“The Legislature was cutting off funds and starving the pension system,” says Stephen Pincus, a Pittsburgh attorney representing the retirees in all three states. “They shouldn’t now be able to cry there’s no money in the pension system. They had a large hand in creating the crisis.”

South Dakota offers a twist. The state Legislature has been one of the best in the nation at financing its public employee pension system over the years; it was 97-percent funded in 2000 and 2008, according to the Pew report . Lawmakers even increased benefits two years ago. The state retirement system investments did lose more than 20 percent in value in 2008, but gained as much in fiscal 2010.

Pincus says that makes South Dakota’s targeting of current employees and retirees suspect. “There’s no crisis in South Dakota,” he says. “They had one bad year. So they’re going to shore up their pension fund by cutting benefits to those who already receive them?”

Rob Wylie, executive director of the South Dakota retirement system, counters that when the funding level fell to 76 percent after the 2008 losses, it triggered for the first time a state law requiring the pension system to take immediate steps to return the funding level to 100 percent. Savings gained from reducing benefits for newly hired employees would have taken too many years for the system to catch up, Wylie says. So after consulting with retirees the pension board chose to ask lawmakers to trim the cost-of-living increase.

“We could have reversed the increase in the funding formula we approved in 2008,” says Wylie. “But the retiree groups said can you find another way to slow the growth in costs without decreasing the formula? So we did.”

Asked why states are taking the risky strategy of aiming at current retirees, Robert Klausner , a Florida attorney who specializes in public pension law, says many state officials believe they have less to lose in the courtroom by challenging pension protections than taking no action at all. “The belief is that if the employer [the state] prevails, it will have been worth the political risk,” Klausner says. “And if they lose, they will be no worse off than before.” Klausner adds that legislatures are taking the politically-difficult step and letting the courts be the “bad guy” if they overturn the law. Retired judges are among the plaintiffs in Colorado and South Dakota.

The first case to be heard is the one in Minnesota, where a September 15 hearing is scheduled on a motion for summary judgment that will be filed by the state. Colorado’s Supreme Court already has sided once with retirees, saying in a 1961 ruling, “Whether it be in the field of sports or in the halls of the legislature it is not consonant with American traditions of fairness and justice to change the ground rules in the middle of the game.”

Meredith Williams, executive director of the Colorado retirement system, says he is confident the state can prove that the system’s current and future financial stress will compel the court to allow the cost-of-living rollback. “PERA has been upfront about the challenges we face,” he says .


Stateline Staff Writer John Gramlich contributed reporting to this piece.

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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.