With all the scare talk in the national news about pension problems in other states, it’s not unusual for me to get questions from constituents about the Public Employees Retirement System of Idaho, better known as PERSI, for state employees and other public workforce constituents. The top line story here is that Idaho’s PERSI plan is well managed, transparent and secure. Neither retirees nor current state employees should worry about whether the plan will be there for them in the future. Due to sound management and good oversight, it will.

That’s not the same picture across the country. In many states, public employee pension plans are facing significant shortfalls. That’s due to delaying adequate funding, unions’ resistance to modifications and the heaping-on of benefits which public entities can’t afford. For example, the city of Detroit has pension obligations of over $10 billion and continuing shortfalls due to rising health care costs, while the city itself is losing both population and taxable property.

Given these problems elsewhere, it’s not unreasonable for people in Idaho to ask how our plan is doing. The answer is, pretty darn well. Most public pension plans do carry projected “shortfalls” of unfunded liabilities, but unlike corporate plans which can be liquidated if a business is sold or fails, in public plans, there’s no potential “fell swoop” of liability. Furthermore, Idaho’s pension law requires PERSI to stay under a 25-year limit of funding liability, so PERSI’s independent board makes occasional adjustments in contribution rates and payouts to stay under the time limit. That gives Idaho a ranking in the top five states nationally for stability of our fund.

Idaho’s PERSI plan also is highly transparent. You can go to the PERSI website (www.persi.idaho.gov) on any day and see current calculations for the fund, based on the prior day’s market performance and underlying investment protocols. There’s nothing hidden here. PERSI has its own governing board appointed by the governor, as well as continuing legislative oversight.

PERSI’s plan covers state employees and retirees and many other public employees such as school district teachers and classified workers, municipal workers such as police and fire, as well as a number of non-governmental entities.

A recent report from the PERSI actuary Milliman, put the plan’s active contributors at over 70,000 individuals, representing 783 employers and over 45,000 retirees. The fund’s value is over $16.3 billion. These are all record numbers. The PERSI liability ratio is over 89 percent funded with an amortization period of 16.2 years, well below the 25-year limit set by state law. Contributions to PERSI come from public employers as well as from individual workers. Cost of living increases to benefits for retirees and adjustments to the contribution rate are also considered from time to time.

Another feature of Idaho’s PERSI plan is that it is not intended to constitute a retiree’s full income stream. Our policy assumption is that retirees need to plan for their own retirements beyond PERSI, as with personal savings, Social Security, and wise and prudent lifestyles. That helps secure the plan’s overall strength into the future. PERSI also offers a voluntary set-aside program called PERSI Choice, which allows employees to put additional money into tax-deferred accounts which add to an employee’s savings profile.

Other states have more generous plans but also have difficulty meeting rising costs. While Idaho’s plan is more modest in benefits, it is more secure, prudent and responsibly managed. That befits us as a state in which fiscal responsibility is an important touchstone.

From time to time, proposals are advanced to change Idaho’s PERSI overall structure from a “defined benefit” plan to a “defined contribution” plan in which employees are totally responsible for their own retirement nest eggs. These proposals usually come from conservative “think tanks” like the Idaho Freedom Foundation which has close ties to out-of-state groups which favor such modifications and appear to want Idaho to dismantle its plan.

In recent years, some states including Utah have developed so-called hybrid plans which changed its plan for new employees to a mix of defined benefits and defined contributions. While I don’t see Idaho going that far, we continue to look at adjustments from time to time to keep Idaho’s plan up to date, safe and secure.

As the chairman of the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee which scrutinizes PERSI, you can count on us to keep a watchful eye on these ideas while staying focused on costs and benefits to the state and our thousands of current and retired employees. This is just another way in which your legislators help maintain the state’s prudent and positive policies.

Stephen Hartgen of Twin Falls represents District 24 in the Idaho House of Representatives.

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