Fuse Lit on the Pension Time Bomb, and the Next Tax Revolt?

One thing conspicuously missing from both party conventions is any talk of government debt and deficits. Even Democrats usually acknowledge grudgingly that our deficits are a time bomb waiting to go off, though this is usually in service of their Great White Whale obsession, which is to raise taxes on Great White Males.

So it is with considerable interest that I note the increasing visibility of the real-time collapse of public pension systems. The Wall Street Journal this morning offers a nice roundup of how low interest rates are causing many public pension systems to have investment returns that are way too low to sustain the promised payouts to retirees. Most shocking were the numbers from the nation’s largest public pension, California’s Calpers:

Calpers said that its fiscal 2016 return was 0.6%, the slimmest gain since the 2008-2009 crisis. Calpers has a funding gap of roughly $112 billion, according to the most recent available data. As recently as last year, Calpers Chief Investment Officer Ted Eliopoulos said in an annual letter that the plan was “reassured by our 20-year investment return of 7.76%,” which exceeded the internal target of 7.5%.

There are credible independent estimates that California’s real shortfall is closer to something like $500 billion, but never mind for now. Suddenly even the careerist managers of these programs are edging toward embracing what conservative reformers have been advocating for more than 20 years—moving from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans (more like 401K). For instance:

In California, the incoming head of the largest U.S. public pension isn’t ruling out changes. Marcie Frost, who starts as Calpers’ chief executive in October, said on a July 14 call with reporters that she is an advocate for traditional pension benefits but couldn’t say “whether the full [defined-benefit] plan is…the right plan” for California. “We always have to think about what options might be out there,” Ms. Frost said.

That’s what poker players call a pretty clear “tell.”

But the old order won’t go down without a fight. Just have a look at Cook County (Chicago!) for what will likely come to a Democratic-run area near you:


CHICAGO (WLS) –Cook County taxpayers are outraged after property tax bills showed up in the mail. The bills are skyrocketing this year.

The city of Chicago and its public school district’s fiscal problems literally hit home over the weekend, when property owners saw their second installment tax bills.

Outside the assessor’s office, city homeowners told one property tax horror story after another. “Our taxes increased fivefold,” said William Phillips of Rogers Park. “I was expecting it to go up maybe twice as much but not four to five times as much.” “My tax bill increased almost $1,200 dollars,” said Cornes King of Chatham.

“More than tripled. The city’s piece more than tripled,” said Logan Square resident Janelle Squire.

The bills that arrived over the weekend reflect rising Cook County real estate values and, in Chicago, the city’s $588 million levy increase. Most of it is to restore police and firefighter pensions that Mayor Rahm Emanuel says his predecessors underfunded. . . the Chicago Public Schools Board is expected to approve a $250 million property tax hike to pay for teacher pensions.

It’s one thing to ask people to pay higher property taxes to maintain or improve current services, or if inflation is causing property values to rise. I doubt taxpayers will be content to fork over more money to pay pensions well above what most taxpayers enjoy. As the Journal reports:

In Erie, Pa., schools are struggling to afford the basics because pension costs have nearly tripled in the past five years, said city schools Superintendent Jay Badams.

Students in Erie receive stapled copies of “Everyday Mathematics” rather than the hardcover textbook. Two winters ago, 21 buckets were needed to catch all the leaks from the ceiling of a second-grade classroom following a snowstorm. Since 2011, one-fifth of the workforce has been eliminated and three schools have closed.

Sounds like it’s time to dust off Proposition 13 and export it to more states.

P.S. Look for a federal bailout of state pension obligations under a Hillary Administration.

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