Up here in New Hampshire, we have some experience with politicians trying to use public workers’ retirement funds to balance the budget.
Back when Craig Benson was Governor, he wanted to use money from the public employee retirement system to balance the state budget.
But up here in New Hampshire, the public didn’t let him get away with that. In 1984, Granite State voters amended our state Constitution to protect our employees’ retirement benefits. New Hampshire Constitution Article 36-a [Use of Retirement Funds] provides:
“The employer contributions certified as payable to the New Hampshire retirement system … shall be appropriated each fiscal year … All of the assets and proceeds, and income there from, of the New Hampshire retirement system … shall be held, invested or disbursed as in trust for the exclusive purpose of providing for such benefits and shall not be encumbered for, or diverted to, any other purposes.”
Down in Washington DC, the federal government hasn’t been quite so careful. Down in DC, public employee retirement funds are regularly used to balance the budget.
In fact, when the federal government hit the debt ceiling in May 2011, public employee retirement contributions were used to keep the federal government going for more than two months (until Congressional Republicans finally agreed to increase the debt limit).
At last report,
- more than $800 billion of the federal debt was owed to the federal employees’ retirement system;
- more than $600 billion of the federal debt was owed to military employees’ retirement programs;
- more than $45 billion of the federal debt was owed to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund.
State and local employees also own a significant chunk of the federal debt. At last report, pension systems for state and local government employees held almost $190 billion in Treasury securities.
Adding it all up, the nation owes about $1.6 trillion to the various public employees’ retirement systems. (That’s direct debt – not including unfunded liabilities.)
That’s only slightly more than what tax cuts for the wealthiest 5% have cost the Treasury since 2001.
Should we really be surprised that right-wing Republicans are trying so hard to “reform” public pensions?
The business lobbying group ALEC (“American Legislative Exchange Council”) has led the crusade. “Taxpayers are no longer willing to bear the increasing cost of these plans… They are demanding reforms that will bring these plans into line with pension and OPEB benefits offered in the private sector.” (What an interesting comparison! Federal law generally prohibits private sector pension plans from loaning money to the company that sponsors the plan.)
As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan followed ALEC’s lead – almost word-for-word.
Up here in the Granite State, we believe that government should fulfill the promises it has made to its employees. We even amended our state constitution to ensure that public employees’ retirement funds would be used only to pay retirement benefits.
It’s time for the country to stop using public employee retirement funds to pay the cost of extending tax cuts for the wealthy.
It’s time for Congressional Republicans to stop trying to weasel out of their obligations to federal employees.
It’s time to keep the country’s promises. (Now that’s a conservative value.)
Wait! That $45 billion borrowed from the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund deserves a closer look.
The Post Office is losing money. Most of that deficit is being caused by Congressionally-mandated payments to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund. That mandate dates back to the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006.
Guess what else happened in 2006? Just months before Congress decided to have the Postal Service pre-fund retiree benefits (and loan that money to the US Treasury), the country had hit the debt ceiling, and had borrowed from the federal employees’ retirement system to pay the bills.
(No, by the time 2006 rolled around, the Bush tax cuts hadn’t “jump started” the economy or started to erase the federal debt. So Congress used federal employees’ retirement contributions as a Rainy Day Fund.)
Kind of convenient, isn’t it? The country needs to borrow money, and suddenly there’s a new Fund to borrow from.
Only now, that Fund is drowning the Postal Service in debt.