BATON ROUGE, La. – Neil Carpenter took a pay cut when he accepted a job as a Louisiana state accountant more than 12 years ago, but he figured he would make up for the loss with a retirement check that would guarantee long-term financial security for him and his family.
Now, the 41-year-old finds his life plan teetering as Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal seeks to restructure the pension system for rank-and-file workers, potentially requiring higher employee contributions and delaying the retirement plans of employees such as Carpenter.
“Do you really want to breach a contract with the employees who have committed a long part of their lives to the state of Louisiana?” Carpenter asked state lawmakers recently.
For years, state governments lured workers with the promise of lucrative pensions that provide nearly the pay that employees earned on the job. But after years of budget crunches, nearly every state has revamped public retirement benefits in an effort to shrink the long-term obligations that are billions of dollars short of what is needed to cover benefits.
The moves have triggered a legal and political battle about whether states are reneging on their promises to millions of public-sector workers.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that since 2009, 43 states have boosted the slice of money workers must pay toward their own retirement, changed the age when a retiree can get benefits or modified their pension plans in other ways.
“In most cases, the changes affect only people hired after the legislation was passed. In a few plans, the changes apply to non-vested members, as well,” said Ron Snell, a public-employee pension expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Governors as ideologically apart as the conservative Jindal and California Democrat Jerry Brown are facing intense opposition from labor groups, workers and even members of their own parties as they try to change pension rules. And some battles have shifted to the courts, because most states have some sort of legal protection for public pensions.
Florida lawmakers last year passed a law requiring state workers to start paying 3 percent of their salary toward their pensions. Unions representing state workers challenged the law and won in a lower court. The lawsuit awaits a state Supreme Court decision.
Arizona legislators also backed a 3-percentage-point increase in retirement contributions for public employees, but they’re working on reversing that increase after it was successfully challenged in court.
A New Hampshire judge ruled that recent pension changes in that state illegally raised contribution rates for workers vested in the state retirement system.
Few states have moved to raise the retirement age or change existing service requirements for current workers, as Jindal proposed. But most are grappling with the issue in some way:
In New York, lawmakers voted to require new public-sector employees to pay more toward their retirement and to wait longer to get benefits. Public employee unions had strongly opposed Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to cut benefits for future workers.
In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn proposed raising the retirement age to 67 for public employees, requiring them to pay more toward their pensions and making school districts and colleges share in the costs.
Washington lawmakers reduced benefits for future state workers who take early retirement. Those who retire before age 62 already are penalized with lower pension benefits. Now, workers hired beginning in May 2013 will face a 50-percent reduction if they retire at age 55 – a move expected to save $1.3 billion over 25 years.
One of the biggest battles is being waged in Louisiana, where pension programs are more than $18 billion short of the funding they’ll need to pay for promised benefits. The governor says the shortfall threatens funding for critical state services as well as the state’s overall ability to provide pensions to workers.
“What we’re doing today is not sustainable. Part of the reason we’re in this hole is for too many years, politicians made promises without paying for those promises,” Jindal said.
Jindal wants to raise the contribution rate for current state workers and public college employees from 8 percent to 11 percent of their pay. He also wants to push the retirement age from as early as 55 for current workers to as late as age 67, depending on how many years they’ve been in the system and their age. He’s seeking to create a cheaper 401(k)-style of pension plan for new hires.
The proposals would affect the retirement plans of 50,000 current state employees, including workers at public colleges.
The ideas have faced resistance so far from lawmakers and constitutional questions about diminishing benefits already promised to employees. Opponents, including leaders of the state employee retirement system, call the proposals illegal, saying they break agreements made with employees when they were hired.
“People entered into state government with a state contract provided for specifically in the Constitution,” said Roy Mongrue, general counsel for the Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana and a former assistant attorney general.