Time seems to be running out on those who do not want a stable, secure and sustainable retirement program for public employees. IPERS, the Iowa Public Employment Retirement System, is well on the way to recovery before its opponents can kill it. But they’re still trying.
The criticism this time comes in a Des Moines Register opinion piece, from a familiar source, the Public Interest Institute (PII) in Mount Pleasant.
In its latest ideological attack on IPERS, PII offers no data — not a single financial indicator — to demonstrate a problem. In fact, IPERS is rebounding from troubles brought on by the Great Recession and inadequate state contributions in the latter half of the last decade.
According to the latest IPERS annual report, IPERS’s ratio of funded actuarial assets to liabilities — which had dropped from 89.1 percent in FY2008 to a low of 79.9 percent in FY2011 — has continued to rebound, rising in FY2015 from 82.7 percent to 83.7 percent.
In an Iowa Policy Project report in late 2013, Imran Farooqi, Peter Fisher and David Osterberg showed that contrary to high-profile examples of public pension problems with the city of Detroit and the state of Illinois, the public employee pension systems in Iowa and most states were generally healthy and well-managed for the long term.
“Iowa’s public pension plans have sufficient assets to pay benefits now and well into the future. And recent improvement in the plans’ designs have already enabled them to begin recouping losses incurred during the recessionary stock market decline,” they wrote. Now, 2 1/2 years later, there is no indication of a change in that positive trend.
That report did recommend ways to strengthen IPERS and other public employee retirement plans in Iowa, such as increasing contributions and meeting actuarial recommendations for those contributions.
What we need to remember is that the purpose of IPERS is not to see how little we can pay public employees, but to attract good employees partly with a promise of a secure retirement. It is to “improve public employment within the state, reduce excessive personnel turnover, and offer suitable attraction to high-grade men and women to enter public service in the state.” This is the stated purpose of the law, Chapter 97B.2.
The biggest problem for PII is that IPERS may fully recover before PII gets the law changed to a less secure “defined contribution” system. A defined benefit system provides financial security by pooling risk in the group — more efficient than having everyone on their own based on defined contributions that they might outlive.
So let’s be clear: Shifting from a defined benefit plan like IPERS to a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), is a way to cut benefits and reduce retirement security.
We can spend our time better addressing real concerns to assure our public employees can deliver on public education, overseeing human services, policing our streets and guarding prisoners — and making sure they can retire securely when they are done working for us.