Public pensions treated as sacred trust in Mississippi

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, September 22, 2012

OXFORD — Few, if any, retirement systems for state employees are as well-managed as Mississippi’s. Few, public or private, are as solid.

The Public Employee Retirement System is a point of pride for the state. Its leaders and directors have consistently been people of integrity, recognizing the sacred trust inherent in their roles.

That doesn’t mean PERS is immune from problems.

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It is a creature of the Legislature, after all, and even sound decisions made on solid projections can turn out to be off the mark.

The good news — the really, really good news for state employees (and I am one of them) — is that PERS actually has investments, making it unlike Social Security and a smattering of other public and private pensions.

When retirement funds are deducted from a state paycheck, that money plus a share from the employer’s budget is retained. PERS has cash in the bank, hovering around $20 billion for the past several years. The Legislature can’t touch a dime of it, not even as collateral for loans.

Social Security is very different. Similarly, money is taken from paychecks and employers pay matching funds into the federal pension plan for all workers. Very different is that Congress “borrows” every penny as soon as it arrives and leaves an IOU in the cookie jar. That makes Social Security a mere promise to pay. Money isn’t actually there.

While state elections were looming about this time last year, a blue-ribbon study panel came forth with its report on PERS and the much smaller separate funds PERS manages for municipal employees, state troopers and legislators.

The news was not all good. Earlier projections of the return on investment of the $20 billion turned out to be too optimistic, given marketplace events since 2008. PERS needed to make benefit adjustments or receive an infusion of cash to make accountants happy, to reach a point where reserves were ample to cover retirees well into the future.

Immediately, candidates for statewide offices and the Legislature fell all over themselves assuring retirees and state employees that all was well, that they understood and appreciated the aforementioned sacredness of the retirement accounts.

Such assurance was smart. About 165,000 people (voters) are PERS members and about 210,000 people (voters) are drawing retirement. It only takes about 500,000 votes to become governor.

Anyway, elections were held.

The Legislature convened.

And the can was kicked down the road.

Of course, what that means for the 2013 legislative session — and for budget planners — is that last year’s smaller fiscal challenge looms as this year’s larger challenge.

Retirement plans such as Mississippi’s are not complex.

The income, as described, comes from workers and from the budgets of their employers plus additional money (or, in some cases, losses) from investments. Direct allocations can be and have been made from state funds.

The expenses are monthly checks to retirees based on their contributions to the system or “cash-outs” to employees who get back what they’ve paid in if they leave before reaching retirement eligibility.

Retirees also receive one additional check per year — known as the 13th check — that is actuarily based on cost-of-living increases since retirement. (Those who don’t understand think of this as a bonus, but it compares to the COLA increases built into Social Security payments each year.)

The math of managing such a system does get complicated and there are Ponzi-like elements. For example, state employment had been growing sharply each year for the past 25 years. It’s a good thing to have more people paying in to the retirement fund. But when employment levels off or the economy stalls, new calculations are necessary.

That’s where we are today.

And where we were at the same time last year.

The state has mathematicians and computers fully capable of looking at the books as they are today and coming up with strategies to keep PERS as solid as it has historically been.

But the mathematicians and computers can’t put those strategies into action.

So far, there’s been a lot of time wasted yapping about what was or wasn’t done right or wrong.

And what’s been missing is a leader (or leaders) who step up and say, “Hey, let’s do this.”

As mentioned, PERS has a proud history. Whether its future is equally good depends on whether lawmakers who were more than willing to talk the talk will, when decision time comes, walk the walk.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail