Pension Legacy Costs and Local Government Finances

How will local government finances be affected by the large and increasing burden to pay for previously obligated pension costs? How, in particular, will these pension legacy costs change residents’ perceptions of the local property tax and their willingness to pay? As a first step in a larger Lincoln Institute of Land Policy research agenda on these questions, we ask: What is known–and just as importantly, what is not known–about the magnitude of unfunded local government pension liabilities in the United States? (see Gordon, Rose, and Fischer 2012)

It is a first principle of public finance that current services should be paid with current revenues and that debt finance should be reserved for capital projects that provide services to future taxpayers. This principle is violated when pension liabilities associated with current labor services are not funded by current purchases of financial assets and instead have to be paid for by future taxpayers.

Alas, principles of prudence in public finance are not always observed, and local governments in the United States have accumulated substantial unfunded pension liabilities in recent years. This situation breaks an important link in the relationship between taxpayers and the services they receive–the rough correspondence between the overall value of public services and the resources taken from the private sector. There is considerable debate about the strength of this correspondence and how price-like the relationship is between value paid and value received for individual taxpayers, but there can be little question that using current revenues to pay for past services weakens the link.

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