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Smoke, Mirrors, and Pension “Reform”

Across the nation, public pensions still in jeopardy

By Mary Ellen Flannery


From Arizona to Florida, and all sorts of places in between, public pensions are under attack. Across the nation, governors and state legislators are cutting pension benefits for retired teachers and other public employees, forcing new workers to enroll in 401(k)-style “defined contribution” plans rather than “defined benefit” pensions, which are more secure and not subject to stock market ups and downs.

But take a look at the numbers. Pensions aren’t the real problem. Yes, some pension systems are underfunded, either because politicians diverted their required contributions or because investments went sour during the recession. But the real problem, according to a report from Good Jobs First, a national policy resource center, is the huge amount of money that states are throwing away on corporate tax cuts, loopholes, and subsidies.

Consider Michigan, where state pension costs add up to about $586 million per year, while the annual cost of Gov. Rick Snyder’s giveaways to corporations near $1.9 billion. Or Florida, where pensions cost the state about $900 million per year, and, thanks to Gov. Rick Scott, wealthy corporations get away with a whopping $3.8 billion. (For additional state figures, visit

The Plot Against Pensions

If you think this just a coincidence, you’re wrong. right-wing activists, with very deep pockets, are behind these attacks on workers. In Florida, Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, teamed with lawmakers this spring in an attempt to overhaul that state’s pension fund and protect their own financial interests. “If the Koch brothers have come into Florida and want to influence how we do our pension system, the only reason I see that they are doing it is for monetary benefit,” retired teacher Phyllis Compton told NEA’s Education Votes. Thanks to the efforts of the unions, the pension-gutting bill was defeated in the final hours of the legislative session.

“The Plot Against Pensions,” a recent report from the Institute for America’s Future, shows clearly that the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation are working in tandem, especially in Arizona, Kentucky, and Rhode Island, to “manufacture the perception of crisis and press for cuts to guaranteed retirement income.” The Arnold Foundation—it was started by an Enron billionaire—also gave millions of dollars to pay for the one-sided PBS series, “The Pension Peril.” (The good news is that earlier this year PBS returned Arnold’s money and pulled the series when Arnold’s motives came to light.)

NEA believes strongly that retirement security isn’t just for the wealthy. We know public employees have faithfully contributed their fair share to their pensions—typically 8 to 10 percent of their paychecks—and we understand that an insecure 401(k)-style plan is no substitute for a pension. In addition, one-third of teachers are not covered by Social Security so their pension is their only source of retirement income. (click here for more about NEA’s positions on educators’ pensions and additional resources.) But we also believe that it’s vital for educators to speak up and talk about the importance of adequate retirement benefits to elected officials, community groups, family, neighbors, and friends, and work collaboratively to preserve their retirement security.

ILLINOIS—Over decades, politicians in Illinois created the nation’s largest state pension shortfall—around $130 billion—by shorting or skipping their required contributions to the pension funds of teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public employees. Instead of accepting responsibility, state politicians last year passed a new law, cutting pensions for current retirees, while limiting benefits for future retirees.

Illinois Education Association (IEA) President Cinda Klickna promised a fight in return. “We will fight for as long as it takes,” she told IEA members, “so that you have a viable pension that is protected.”

In early 2014, a coalition group called We Are One Illinois, which includes IEA, challenged the law’s constitutionality, pointing out that the Illinois Constitution states that membership in a public pension system is a contractual relationship, “the benefits of which may not be diminished or impaired.”

In July, We Are One Illinois won an important victory in the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled that health care for retired state workers is indeed a pension benefit protected by the constitution. “Pension reform, RIP?” asked Crain’s Chicago Business Journal. A decision on We Are One’s other lawsuits against the state is expected later this year.

KANSAS—Kansans live by two rules: Work hard and play by rules, says the Kansas National Education Association (KNEA). And Kansas educators and other public employees certainly have done both, especially when it comes to their pension system. Over the past several years, KNEA leaders and members have crisscrossed the state, educating the public and lawmakers about KPERS, the state pension system, and working to keep the program sound.

Earlier this year, along with their partners in the coalition Keeping the Kansas Promise, KNEA members beat back a bill that would have created a 401(k)-style fund for new hires. It was a big win, but the issue no doubt will return this year.

MISSOURI—In 2014, the Missouri National Education Association joined forces with other labor allies to form the Protect Missouri Retirement coalition—and just in time. Last spring, with the Arnold Foundation at their backs, state lawmakers attempted to move public employees out of their pension system and into 401(k)-style funds. It didn’t make sense. In West Virginia and Alaska, experience has already demonstrated that a switch from state pensions to “defined contribution” plans ends up costing the state more (that’s why West Virginia has switched back to a defined-benefit plan).

But it doesn’t have to make sense—just money—to the enemies of public pensions.

PENNSYLVANIA—First, Gov. Tom Corbett gutted education funding to the tune of $1.1 billion since 2011. Then, he slashed corporate taxes, costing the state $12 billion in revenue since 2010. Now, he expects Pennsylvania taxpayers to believe him when he says that the cost of public pensions are at the root of the state’s financial ills.

Corbett’s latest proposal would cut state pensions by 40 percent, and move future employees into 401(k)-style direct-contribution plans. But the Keystone Research Center points out that “corporate tax breaks have a bigger impact on the state budget than pensions.” Keystone also notes that, during the last decade, Pennsylvania employees contributed nearly twice as much to their pensions as their employers.

“This is the exact same kind of bad policy that created Pennsylvania’s pension debt in the first place,” says Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) Vice President Jerry Oleksiak. “The fact that the governor wants to repeat the same mistake is baffling.”

NEA Education Votes writer Tim Reed contributed to this report.


The retirement security of NEA members is under attack like never before. State coalitions, involving NEA affiliates, are working collaboratively to protect the retirement security of public employees. Many have resources, including petitions to sign, for educators who would like to help defend their pensions. Don’t see your state on the short list below? Contact your state Association or check out the National Public Pension Coalition.

Alaska Public Pension Coalition

Arizona Retirement Security Coalition

Keeping the Kansas Promise

Keep Oklahoma’s Promises

We Are One Illinois

Kentucky Public Pension Coalition

Protect Missouri Retirement

Wisconsin Coalition for Retirement Security

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