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Public pensions in flux: Can the federal government’s experiences inform state responses?

William G. Gale, Sarah E. Holmes, and David C. John

In many policy-related situations, the states can be useful laboratories to determine the most appropriate federal actions. Variations across states in health care programs, earned income credit rules, minimum wages, and other policies have helped inform debates about federal interventions.

In this paper, we reverse that approach. Many state and local governments currently face difficulties financing future pension obligations for their workers. The federal government, however, faced similar circumstances in the 1980s and successfully implemented a substantial reform. We examine the situation the federal government faced and how it responded to the funding challenge. We present key aspects of the situation facing state governments currently and draw comparisons between them and the federal situation in the 1980s. Our overarching conclusion is that states experiencing distress today about the cost and funding of its pension plans could benefit from following an approach similar to the federal government’s resolution of its pension problems in the 1980s.

The federal government retained the existing Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) for existing employees and created a new Federal Employees’ Retirement System (FERS) for new employees. FERS combined a less generous defined benefit plan than CSRS, mandatory enrollment in Social Security, and a new defined contribution plan with extensive employer matching. Although we do not wish to imply that a “one size fits all” solution applies to the very diverse situations that different states face, we nonetheless conclude that the elements of durable, effective, and just reforms for state pension plans will likely include the major elements of the federal reform listed above.

Section II discusses the federal experience with pension reform. Section III discusses the status and recent developments regarding state and local pensions. Section IV discusses the similarities in the two situations and how policy changes structured along the lines of the federal reform could help state and local governments and their employees.

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