Teacher pension changes should be part of budget solution

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If you really love teachers, you’ll support teacher pension reform.

If you talk to teachers -– retired or current -– you will know that they are worried that the retirement fund they’ve been paying into won’t be there for them in the future. And they have good reason to worry.

Since 2008, when the state borrowed $2 billion to shore up the teachers’ retirement fund, the state has made the fully required payments every year into the system.

But that hasn’t been enough -– after putting the borrowed funds into the system, the state had 70 cents on the dollar to pay teacher pensions, but since then that number has dropped to 56 cents on the dollar.

Meanwhile, the amount the state has had to pay into the fund has jumped from about $500 million in 2008 to over $1 billion today. And that number is projected to grow to over $6 billion by 2032.

No wonder teachers are worried – they should be. And taxpayers should be worried too.

It is time to reform our teachers’ pensions –- both to protect current teachers and retirees, but also to improve the system for future hires and taxpayers.

In his budget, Gov. Dannel Malloy proposed shifting a third of the cost of teacher pensions -– about $400 million a year in 2018 –- to municipalities. While there are good reasons to ask the towns to contribute, ultimately it wasn’t municipal leadership that chose to under-fund the pension system year after year. And most of the current payment goes to pay for unfunded liabilities.

But that doesn’t mean state leaders shouldn’t change the way things work moving forward.

Connecticut has one of the most unfriendly teacher pension systems in the country for teachers who do not stay in the profession for the long haul. Nearly half of all teachers get no retirement benefits at all because they teach for fewer than ten years, and only a third get a full pension.

For the next generation of teachers, many of whom will be mobile millennials, it makes sense to build a retirement system that gives them greater flexibility.

Also, given Connecticut’s track record, it makes sense to build a system that is less reliant on lawmakers choosing to make yearly payments, and instead puts retirement security back in the hands of teachers.

At the Yankee Institute, we recently released a study written by local actuary Eric Halpern called The Connecticut Teachers’ Retirement System: Can it be stabilized?

In the study, we suggest several short- and long-term solutions to stabilize the pension system, such as putting new teachers on Social Security, or asking new teachers to pay 8 percent into the pension system –- the national average –- instead of the current 6 percent.

To really provide stability over the long-term, bigger reforms are necessary, such as moving new hires into a defined contribution plan; or a hybrid plan, which has a small defined benefit plan supplemented by a larger defined contribution plan.

And the state can ask the municipalities to step up by paying into the system for new hires. This will give them the incentive to look at pay and benefits as a package, instead of the current piecemeal approach. But with this greater responsibility should also come greater say in how the system is set up.

The worst thing lawmakers can do is nothing.

We already have a state employee pension system that is among the worst funded in the country. If nothing is done, our teachers’ pension system is headed in the same direction.

That doesn’t help teachers or taxpayers. None of us want to see the retirement system fail -– particularly because teachers plan for their retirement with the trust that their pensions will be there for them.

It is difficult to change the state employees’ pension system because it can only be reformed at the bargaining table between the governor and the unions. This set-up is clearly part of the problem, as we’ve watched other states make the necessary reforms and then reap the benefits.

But teacher pensions can be reformed by the legislature now, without having to wait for permission.

Without reform, things are likely to get worse –- for teachers and taxpayers.

Suzanne Bates is director of policy and legislative outreach at the Hartford-based Yankee Institute, Connecticut’s free-market think tank.

What do you think?

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