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Tough choice remain for state’s pension fund

Pension plans are long-term enterprises with ups and downs, structured to pay out over decades. And if there’s anyone who has the long view of Mississippi’s Public Employees Retirement System, its outgoing Executive Director Pat Robertson.

Robertson, who’s retiring June 30, remembers starting at PERS in 1980. The agency was just starting to buy stocks for its portfolio. Robertson remembers filling out paper trade orders and sending typewritten checks to the bank. Entries were recorded in paper ledgers.

The retirement system had $1 billion in assets, and was arguably in worse shape than today. PERS had only enough money to cover 48 percent of projected future benefits.

Today, everything is electronic, PERS has more than $27 billion in assets, and it’s again digging out of a long-term shortfall. It has 61 percent of assets needed to cover future benefits, nearly $17 billion less than its projected needs.

The pension fund has tried to turn things around, but is struggling to gain traction. There’s no threat that today’s retirees will go unpaid. But it’s a tough exit note for Robertson, director since 2005.

“We are not as well funded as I would like to be and as a lot of people think we should be,” Roberston said. “But we’re still in a reasonable financial shape.”

Arguably, the best thing that could happen would be for state government, local governments, public schools and universities to hire lots more employees and pay them more. The vast majority of what an agency contributes today goes to pay down the plan’s unfunded previous promises.

“Most of what the employer is paying goes to pay debt from the past,” Robertson said.

But active members have been falling for nearly a decade. PERS projects overall payroll to increase 3.25 percent annually, but over the past five years, the average increase has been 0.6 percent.

That means outgoing payments are outstripping incoming contributions, leaving the plan to make up the difference with investments. So it’s good that investment returns have beaten many other pension funds. Robertson says PERS is on track to gain more than 8 percent in the year ending June 30, exceeding its 7.75 percent target. But some analysts question whether high returns can continue in the future.

That leads to more drastic options. PERS released a report in December looking at ways to reduce its liability. It concluded that changing the structure of the plan to make it like a 401K or reduce benefits would help little because current state employees and retirees would still be paid the current benefits. The plan could also require employees and agencies to contribute more, but that could cut employee income and money for agency programs.

One meaningful change, the report suggests, would be altering the guaranteed 3 percent cost-of-living increase. Some retirees take it as a 13th yearly check.

Lawmakers could eliminate it for one or more years. The report estimates a one-year break would cut unfunded liability in 2042 by $3.5 billion. The system could also change how it multiplies cost-of-living increases. Instead of compounding the interest after age 55, giving retirees 3 percent more on their original amount plus 3 percent on the previous increases, the plan could just grant simple interest. That would reduce overall unfunded liability by $9.4 billion by 2042.

Robertson, though, questions if lawmakers are willing to take the political heat and likely lawsuits accompanying such a change.

“I don’t think there’s any legislative will to do anything like that,” Robertson said. “It’s pretty much sacrosanct.”

Soon Robertson won’t be running PERS. But its challenges will still concern her — she’s a Mississippi taxpayer.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at jeffamy.