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The Impact of Public Pensions on State and Local Budgets


  • Alicia H. Munnell
  • Jean-Pierre Aubry
  • Laura Quinby


State and local pensions have been headline news since the financial collapse reduced the value of their assets, leaving a substantial unfunded liability. The magnitude of that liability depends on the interest rate used to discount future benefit promises but, regardless of the assumptions, states and localities are going to have to come up with more money. This brief looks at the size of the additional funding relative to state budgets. The brief proceeds as follows. The first section provides an overview of state and local plans and in­troduces our sample of six states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. The second section presents data on pension expendi­tures relative to budget totals for states and localities in the aggregate and for our sample of plans. The third section develops baseline budgets for the period 2010-2043 for all states and localities and for the six individual states. It then projects annual required pension contributions beginning in 2014 under three scenarios: 1) amortizing the unfunded liability valued at an 8-percent discount rate over the next 30 years; 2) amortizing the unfunded liability valued at 5 per­cent over the next 30 years; and 3) continuing to pay contributions at current levels until the trust fund is exhausted and then paying benefits on a pay-as-you-go basis. The final section concludes that whereas public plans are substantially underfunded, in the aggregate they currently account for only 3.8 percent of state and local spending. Assuming 30-year amortization beginning in 2014, this share would rise to only 5.0 percent and, even assuming a 5-percent discount rate, to only 9.1 percent. Aggregate data, however, hide substantial variation. States that have seriously underfunded plans and/or generous benefits, such as California, Illinois, and New Jersey, would see contributions rise to about 8 percent of budgets with an 8-percent discount rate and 12.5 percent with a 5-percent discount rate.

Suggested Citation

  • Alicia H. Munnell & Jean-Pierre Aubry & Laura Quinby, 2010. "The Impact of Public Pensions on State and Local Budgets," Issues in Brief ibslp13, Center for Retirement Research, revised Oct 2010.
  • Handle: RePEc:crr:issbrf:ibslp13

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    State and Local Pensions;

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