Charlie Mitchell: Picture improving for state's retirement fund

May 7, 2018 10:25:16 AM

Charlie Mitchell -

 

OXFORD -- Remember the serious discussion of state pension funds during this year's legislative session? 

 

You don't? 

 

Well, that's OK. 

 

It didn't happen. 

 

And that's OK, too. Life is better when pension plans don't make headlines. 

 

For about 65 years, Mississippi has collected from employees and invested money to operate the aptly named Public Employee Retirement System, affectionately known as PERS. Today's system evolved from a post-World War II fund created to purchase annuities for retiring teachers and school administrators. 

 

It now includes almost all state and many municipal employees plus elected officials (who get some extra benefits because, hey, they write the rules). 

 

Today, PERS has assets with a market value of $26.9 billion after recording a 2017 return on invested funds of nearly 15 percent. 

 

Not bad, not bad at all, especially considering the program started with about $60 per year deducted from each teacher's pay. 

 

Any time PERS is mentioned, people get itchy. It's understandable. In 2014, there were more than 91,000 people in city, county or state employment. Mississippi's is on the high side of average with 304 of every 10,000 residents on a public payroll (not including federal employees, of course.) High proportions are not unusual for low population, mostly rural states. The national average is about 230 per 10,000. 

 

Just as there is so much angst at the national level whenever Social Security is mentioned, current retirees and the 91,000 paying into the system are sincerely interested in the financial soundness of PERS. 

 

So, is everything perfect? 

 

No. While PERS is far more solvent than Social Security, Uncle Sam's program for senior citizens, there are some question marks. They are detailed in a largely understandable a report (available online) compiled by PEER, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review and released last month (after lawmakers ended their session). 

 

There is one OMG! number. It is that PERS has $16.8 billion in unfunded liabilities. 

 

That's scary and could be better, but there are many, many moving and changing parts in the picture. This number represents actuarial accrued liability and takes into account all current and future claims. Said another way, it's a highly educated guess. 

 

People enter the system and leave the system at varying rates. A surge in the number of public employees would help this number. A sharp reduction in employees (those making contributions) would hurt. But those are just a couple of factors. Another is projected wage growth. (Pension amounts are based on earnings.) PERS lowered its estimate of future wage inflation from 3.75 percent to 3.25 person based on the best evidence that people's raises won't be as hefty in years to come as they have been in the past. And that's OK. Social Security projects a 1.12 percent per year figure. 

 

A slightly less scary but very real trend is the shift in how many people are putting money in as opposed to how many are taking out. In 2007, there were 2.22 people on the payroll for every retiree. Last year, there were 1.46 people on the payroll for every retiree. Not a good trend. 

 

About 10 years ago, the state cleverly set at about 10 percent the portion of every paycheck all new employees pay into PERS. There was no increase for "legacy" employees, so lawmakers deftly avoided the wrath of the existing workforce. 

 

Any good news? 

 

Yes. During the year, PERS slowly closed the gap between its assets and its projected liabilities. (Only three states have no gap.) Some of this may have been accomplished by a special assessment paid by employers, some was due to the higher contribution paid by newer employees and some was due to the 15 percent return on investment that doubled the projected annual average. All moved the needle in the right direction. A shrinking gap is far less worrisome than a growing gap. 

 

Perhaps more significantly, Mississippi's plan is working better than those in 26 other states, according to Crain's Business Report. Tennessee is way up on the "solid" list, followed by Arkansas, which is also ahead of Mississippi. Louisiana is doing slightly worse and Alabama, along with Kentucky and Illinois, are much worse. 

 

There will come a time when PERS needs more fiscal attention from the Legislature. Not every year will have rosy investment returns and other happy news. 

 

For now, though, it's a point of pride that public employees in Mississippi can breathe easy. "Will there be any money there when I get ready to retire?" is a serious question. For now, the answer is a confident, "Yes." 

 

Charlie Mitchell is an associate dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email reaches him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.