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Work needed to truly fix Oklahoma pension systems

BY BOB WILLIAMS Published: July 7, 2013

All signs point to pension reform being a central issue in Oklahoma's next legislative session. Both Gov. Mary Fallin and Treasurer Ken Miller have said the state's unfunded pension liability, which market valuations estimate are as high as $33 billion, is the one of the final hurdles in the state's quest to regain its AAA credit rating.

With pension reform a possibility, though, the governor and legislators should focus on truly fixing the state's pension problems. They need to know what creating a defined contribution (DC) system for new hires does to reduce the existing unfunded liability: nothing. That move should be accompanied by reforms to the existing defined benefit (DB) structure. This dual approach is the only way to ensure that the growth in retirement obligations doesn't crowd out funding for vital public services like education.

The state should craft a plan to reduce the unfunded liability over a judicious yet fiscally responsible period. To get a more accurate picture of the hurdle presented by the unfunded liability, Oklahoma should immediately begin using lower, risk-free discount rates to value the amount owed in the future. This may mean higher costs today, but will put the state on a sounder financial footing in the future.

The burden cannot be placed solely on taxpayers. Sacrifices must be shared, whether that means increased employee contributions, adjusted benefit accrual rates or reduced cost of living adjustments.

The DB model is at the root of Oklahoma's pension funding dilemma, and a DC system offers a compelling solution. The difference between the two shows why leaders must avoid half-measures like an optional DC plan or “cash-balance” plan.

With benefits guaranteed, DB plans leave taxpayers on the hook whenever promised benefits outpace the ability of the fund to make payments. Public employers often fail to achieve expected investment returns and regularly skip their annual required contributions into the pension funds. Between 2002 and 2011, Oklahoma skipped $3.6 billion in these required payments.

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