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John Hood: Unfunded state liabilities deserve more attention

By John Hood

Special to the Salisbury Post

STATESVILLE — Judging by what makes the front pages, the top of the newscasts, and the list of “what’s trending” on social media, North Carolina politics consists of spirited debates about H.B. 2, spirited debates about voting laws, spirited debates about teacher pay, and spirited debates about why we aren’t talking more about H.B. 2, voting laws, and teacher pay.

All three issues are important and worthy of attention. But there are others at least as important and worthy of attention. How about this one: Did you know that, by some credible estimates, North Carolina owes public employees some $71 billion in compensation for which the state has no money set aside?

I’m talking about non-wage benefits. When they retire, most government workers are expecting to receive a monthly pension as well as supplemental coverage from the state employee health plan. It’s been a key consideration for many who might otherwise have taken a higher-paying job in the private sector but place a higher value on those promised (and tax-advantaged) benefits. To attempt to fund these benefits on a pay-as-you-go basis would be foolish, illegal, and doomed to fail.

So, with regard to the pensions, North Carolina has used taxes, employee contributions, and investment returns to build up a portfolio of assets with a market value approaching $90 billion. Unfortunately, nothing comparable has been done to accumulate assets to offset the state’s liability to pay retiree health benefits. Virtually that entire liability is unfunded. And I’m told that, according to a new state estimate, it is now approximately $33.5 billion, up from a $26.6 billion valuation last year.

There’s still more bad news. That pension fund of $90 billion comes close to funding North Carolina’s pension liabilities in theory. But the theory the state has been using — that the pension fund will realize a long-term average rate of return of 7.25 percent on its assets — appears to be far removed from reality.

According to Andrew Biggs, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and former deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration, if state pension plans were required to use the same rate-of-return projections that private plans use, North Carolina would have an unfunded pension liability of about $37.6 billion. Just to be clear — that would still give North Carolina, at 70 percent, one of the highest funding ratios for state pension plans in the country. But it still represents a very big hole in the state’s finances. Even a more liberal estimate, using a higher discount rate, would yield an unfunded liability in the many billions of dollars.

The two candidates for the office of North Carolina’s state treasurer, Republican Dale Folwell and Democrat Dan Blue III, met in Statesville on September 27 to discuss these and other issues at a “Hometown Debate” co-hosted by the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership and the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce.

“The state health care plan is bankrupt, and our state pension plan, one of the largest pools of money in the world, has tremendous headwinds that have to be attacked and solved,” said Folwell, a certified public accountant who previously served as a state representative and assistant secretary of commerce.

Blue, a bond attorney, agreed that the unfunded liability for retiree health benefits was a big problem, but said North Carolina’s pension fund was “95 percent to 96 percent” funded and getting “adequate returns on its investments, although the last couple of years have experienced a very dicey market.” He called for “incremental change,” not the fundamental changes Folwell advocates such as slashing investment fees and building up state assets more quickly.

If you don’t work for government, perhaps you don’t think these matters don’t affect you. You are mistaken. If North Carolina’s next state treasurer, legislature, and other officials don’t take immediate action on these unfunded liabilities, you’ll be among those stuck with a larger bill in the future — in the form of higher taxes and fewer government services.

The stakes here are massive. Alas, the media coverage is puny.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.

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