Alton, IL

Accounting Gimmicks in Pension Reports?

Story by WBGZ Radio

Budget experts say states like Illinois are using accounting gimmicks to lie to the public about the stability of their public worker retirement plans.

According to a new report by the American Legislative Exchange Council, Illinois and many other states are deceiving the public when they say how much debt their pension systems have. Pension managers subtract what they think they’ll get back in assumed investment returns.

“The annual required contributions were consistently less than what the state should have actually paid in,” said Thurston Powers, research analyst at the Center for State and Fiscal Reform, a division of the American Legislative Exchange Council. “They were underfunding even when they said they made their required contributions.”

Using a more realistic rate of return, the report showed Illinois’ pension accounts go from nearly 50 percent funded to less than 25 percent funded.

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Joe Nation, professor of public policy at Stanford University, said the result is a debt snowball that eventually crowds out services.

“The people who are being hurt the most by this fake math are the poorest people in society,” he said.

Stanford’s Institute for Economic Policy Research operates, which shows each state’s pension liability and a modified estimate of what the debt is when applying a more conservative estimate of assumed investment returns.

Illinois officials say they have $130 billion in state pension debt, but Nation says it’s really much higher.

Powers says that states can take away the ability for lawmakers to misrepresent their real debt by moving retirees to a 401(k)-style system similar to what's used in the private sector. Wisconsin, which Powers said has the most well-funded retirement fund in the nation, uses a hybrid pension/401k-style plan.

(Copyright WBGZ Radio /


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