The Pew Center on the States just released an updated report on unfunded liabilities of state pension (and retiree health) systems. The figures are sobering. In FY 2009, state pension plans were funded at an average of 79 percent, meaning that they were short about one dollar for every five that projections suggest they’ll need to meet their obligations.
While there’s no doubt about the troublesome implications of these findings, there’s a lot of disagreement as to causes. Lately, governors and state legislators (of both parties, but mostly Republicans), as well as dozens of commentators, have tried to lay the blame on the public sector workers, to whom the pensions are owed – seeking to restrict these workers’ collective bargaining rights, with the claim that this will help control the cost of benefits.
The unfairness of blaming public sector workers – and their unions – should be pretty clear. By all accounts (also here), the primary reason that pension plans are in trouble is that the 2008 collapse of financial markets decimated the value of pension fund investments (the early 2000’s recession also seems to have played a role). Add to that an aging population (there is an increasing percentage of retirees as a share of the population, and they are living longer), as well as the failure of many states to make their required contributions during good times, and you have a fairly comprehensive explanation for the pension "crisis."
Nevertheless, some have argued that public employee collective bargaining has exacerbated states’ pension problems – after all, more than their non-union counterparts, union members have tended to trade current salaries in favor of increases in deferred benefits. In that case, we might expect that states with higher densities in public sector union membership will have larger unfunded pension obligations. These differences need not be huge, but it’s reasonable to anticipate that they would be discernible. Let’s take a look.