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Op-Ed: Public Pensions Are Super Boring, Until They’re Not

This article was authored and contributed to Breitbart Texas by Jess Fields.

Few public policy issues are more boring than public employee pensions.

Really, who wants to sit around the dinner table and talk about pension amortization, funded ratios, or unfunded liabilities? By comparison, C-SPAN 2 looks like a summer blockbuster.

But what if a major Texas city suddenly faced financial ruin and ultimately bankruptcy, all because they could no longer afford to pay their public employees the guaranteed return promised by their pensions? Suddenly, pensions would be just the first part of a real-life horror movie.

That is exactly what happened to Detroit, Michigan. And it could happen to Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, or San Antonio, if we don’t pay attention.

Detroit’s politicians didn’t like to talk about pensions either. So they just didn’t, for years. As they ignored the problem year after year, recklessly spending public money on pet projects (and sometimes keeping some for themselves), Detroit edged closer and closer to the edge of an abyss.

We all know what happened next. Detroit became the largest U.S. city to ever declare bankruptcy in 2013. If fundamental changes are not made quickly to the pension plans in major Texas cities, the same fate could be just around the corner.

If a large city in Texas were to declare bankruptcy, of course, it would have a bigger effect than just within the walls of the city hall. That city’s taxpayers would face potential economic ruin, and the state’s economy could take a dive.

It might seem as simple as changing the policies to avoid fiscal disaster, and that would indeed be the solution if a city found itself in serious pension trouble. But under current state law, some of the largest cities are not allowed to make changes to their own pension plans for certain public employees. At least not directly.

Instead, pension plan changes must be run through the Texas Legislature—which meets only once for 140 days every two years.

If an imminent financial crisis caused major cities’ pension funds to collapse in value, leading to difficulty repaying these obligations to retirees, cities would have no ability to change the structure of the funds. They would be plunged into an ever-deepening sinkhole of debt and eventually bankruptcy, with no way to get out.

Like the passengers of the 90s action film “Speed,” about a bus rigged with a bomb that can’t slow down, the cities would be forced to go along for the ride, until crashing into a wall of bankruptcy.

So that this doomsday scenario never occurs, community stakeholders should be able to take control of their own destiny with pension benefits. The state shouldn’t be the only entity that can change the benefit structure.

House Bill 2608 would solve this problem by restoring control of pension funds to the local level. Instead of locking up significant benefits in state statute, HB 2608 would allow city pension systems, like the Houston Firefighters’ Relief & Retirement Fund, to solve pension problems at the local level by changing benefit structures, if they so chose.

The pension problem is a looming disaster in Texas that needs some kind of solution. Like so many financial problems, it’s not the kind of thing that gets noticed until it’s too late.

However, for the sake of our state and our local communities, who are trapped providing expensive pension benefits without any ability to change them, this modest change in state statute is essential to their long-term viability.

Let’s allow our cities to control their pension plans once again, and save Texans from potential financial collapse – sooner, rather than later.

The Hon. Jess Fields is the Senior Policy Analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and a former College Station City Councilman. He happens to like C-SPAN. He may be reached at jfields@texaspolicy.com.

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