The seminar was broken into two parts, the first part presented by PSPRS and the second by the Task Force. The PSPRS was handled mostly by PSPRS' Acting Administrator Jared Smout and covered a broad range of topics, ranging from general discussions about pensions and PSPRS to more specific discussions about the causes of PSPRS' underfunding, COLA's, and the lawsuits challenging SB 1609. I was interested in two particular issues when it came to the PSPRS presentation. The first was what is the status of Hall v. EORP (CV2011-021234), which is challenging the SB 1609 changes to the COLA formulation for EORP members who were still active when SB 1609 became law and the increase in employee contribution rates. The successful Fields decision only challenged the change in the COLA formulation, as the plaintiffs in that case were already retired. There is a shadow case against PSPRS, Parker v. PSPRS, that is challenging PSPRS on the same grounds as Hall. The decision in the Hall case will settle both cases, so it has great relevance to any PSPRS member who was active when SB 1609 went into effect.
Unfortunately, the case still remains in the courts and the latest information shows it is under appeal. This case will have to be settled by the Arizona Supreme Court, so we are still stuck in a holding pattern. My amateur interpretation and prediction from an analysis of the Fields decision is that the plaintiffs will win on the question of COLA's but lose on the question of employee contribution increases. The COLA question is a slam dunk for the plaintiffs and was already addressed in Fields. COLA's were deemed a pension benefit and could not be changed per the Pension Protection Clause of the Arizona Constitution. The question of employee contribution rates will depend on how the Arizona Supreme Court interprets the Contracts Clause in the state and federal Constitutions. The Fields decision did not consider the Contracts Clause, but a reading of the decision shows that the question of employee contribution rates has no clear precedence and may not be covered under the Pension Protection Clause. We will all have to wait and see how the justices rule.
The second issue I was hoping the PSPRS presentation would deal with was simpler: what a victory by the Hall plaintiffs would cost PSPRS. According to PSPRS' esitmates, a plaintiff victory would cost PSPRS $931 million and drop PSPRS' aggregate funding ratio 4% and raise its aggregate contribution rate 6%. He did not break down what would happen if the plaintiffs only won on just one of their questions, so this appears to be the cost of a total victory by the plaintiffs. Remember that if the plaintiffs succeed on the question of employee contribution rates, anyone active at the time SB 1609 went into effect will be owed a refund of all contributions they paid in excess of 7.65%. For the current fiscal year alone, that would 3.4% of pensionable income. This would be a significant refund due of $2,040 for someone who had $60,000 in pensionable income in the current fiscal year.
I was more interested in what the Task Force had to say. This portion was conducted by members of the Task Force, including former Tucson Chief Financial Officer and Deputy City Manager Kelly Gottschalk, who has since been hired to run the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System. To say that their presentation, and particularly their recommendations to cities and towns dealing with pension costs, was a disappointment would be a huge understatement.
The Task Force was set up in June 2014 and made up of 15 members, mostly high-ranking municipal finance and administrative officials from throughout Arizona. Last summer and fall, they had several meetings where they received presentations from various stakeholder groups and others with pension expertise. There is a wealth of information on the Task Force website, and I was encouraged that finally something worthwhile was being done regarding PSPRS. I thought that those municipal officials dealing with the harsh consequences of PSPRS' financial woes would finally have a chance to come together, brainstorm, and come up with some great reform ideas to present to the Arizona Legislature. Boy, was I wrong.
Following are the Task Force's seven recommended practices for employers:
- Budget contributions for DROP members
- Prepay your budget contributions
- Do not defer the Fields case
- Review local board practices
- Prepare a comprehensive study
- Pay off unfunded liability (debt) earlier
- Create a pension funding policy
Recommended practices numbers 2, 3, and 6 all advise employers to pay money they do not have. I agree with recommendation number 3 because it sets a bad precedent in a state where employers have always paid their full, required contributions. Not paying full, required contributions is one of the surest ways to put a city on the path to financial ruin. However, no one is advising employers to defer the additional costs imposed by the Fields decision, but Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities chose to do so because their elected leaders feel like they have no other choice since they simply can not afford the higher contributions right now. Prepay your budget contributions? Pay off the unfunded liability earlier? With what funds? If the cities had the extra money to do what the Task Force recommends, they would already being doing it.
The Task Force's recommended practices amounts to belling the cat. The Task Force had a chance to offer some bold proposals and recommend some necessary reforms to PSPRS. They did neither and wasted a valuable opportunity to have their voice heard. Instead, they provided a list of embarrassingly impractical recommendations. The work of the Task Force will be ignored by anyone serious about reforming PSPRS.