Pension reality check may make funding gap look much bigger
By Andrew Thomason
SPRINGFIELD — A possible change to one of the state's public pension systems could cast a shadow on any reform Illinois lawmakers enact this summer.
The Teachers Retirement System, the largest state-run public pension system, is reviewing the numbers to calculate how much it will make on its investments. If the figure is lower than the current expected rate of return — 8.5 percent — the system's unfunded liability would increase.
In fact, if the adopted rate of return figure is less than 7.75 percent, the unfunded liability would continue to grow yearly, said Hans Zigmund, associate director at the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.
TRS has an unfunded liability of $44 billion, or 55 percent unfunded, meaning it only has enough assets on hand to cover 45 percent of the cost of current and future pensions.
A recommendation for a change to the expected rate of return for TRS investments, which happens every five years, could come as early as its June 21-22 board meeting.
State Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, D-Evanston, said the rate of return could be lowered because of pressure from the bond-rating agencies, which determine a state's credit worthiness.
"The rating agencies like Moody's and their counterparts have been more insistent in recent years that the return on investments be re-calibrated to be more accurate," Schoenberg said. "This is not only happening in Illinois, but across the nation as well."
TRS spokesman Dave Urbanek said no decision has been made and options for adjusting the expected rate of return have not been presented to TRS board members.
Lowering the expected rate of return would be a move in the right direction, but it would not affect the retirement system's finances, said Jeffrey Brown, director for the University of Illinois' Center for Business and Public Policy and an expert on public pension policy.
"It just means we're going to come closer to accurately reporting what the unfunded liability is," Brown said.
"Often what happens in public pensions is those rates are set too high. They tend to be set on someone's expectations on what a risky portfolio allocation would return over time ... but that's highly problematic ... because those expected returns are not guaranteed," Brown explained.
The rate of return on investments for the past decade has been 6.2 percent, rather than the expected return of 8.5 percent. But Urbanek said TRS investments, during the past 30 years, have averaged a return of 9.3 percent.
"The rate of return is a 30-year number, that's our long-range expectation of what we're going to return" on investments, Urbanek said.
Changes to the TRS expected rate of return and unfunded liability would affect the number being associated with savings from public pension reforms, which the General Assembly is pushing. At their heart, the reforms would change cost-of-living increases some retirees receive, as well as move to fund the public pension systems fully in 30 years.
Zigmund said during a committee hearing on public pension reform last week that a lower rate of return for TRS could affect pension savings to the tune of $20 billion over 30 years.
The possibility of an increase in the unfunded liability for TRS is, in part, responsible for the lack of Republican support for a comprehensive pension reform package.
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, questioned a section in the package that would place responsibility for any future increase in TRS' unfunded liability, including an increase caused by the adjustment of the expected rate of return, on local school districts.
"It's a risk that we're just saying, 'We don't want any part of that even though the state created that risk,'" Radogno said.
The four legislative leaders — Radogno; House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago; House Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego; and Senate President John Cullerton, D- Chicago — and Gov. Pat Quinn met Wednesday in Chicago to hash out more far-reaching legislation that could include TRS.
Quinn said Wednesday another such meeting will happen later this month.
Lawmakers and Quinn have said pension reform must be done sooner rather than later, but no special session dates have been set.
Reporter Andrew Thomason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.