PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Assemblymember Randy Kirner, sponsor of changes in the state retirement system, chats outside the Assembly hall with Assm. Pat Hickey, center, and lobbyist Pete Ernaut, right.

An effort to fundamentally change the state worker pension system has fierce ideological support in the Nevada Legislature but is facing equally fierce opposition.

Washoe Republican Assemblymember Randy Kirner said his Assembly Bill 190 deals with the unfunded liabilities of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). But it goes well beyond that, undertaking changes that are not needed to solve the funding. Those changes would likely result in smaller pensions for state workers.

Kirner’s original effort was Assembly Bill 3, which was killed in committee in February. But he did not give up, coming back with A.B. 190. It provides for what Kirner calls a hybrid 401(k) plan. It would continue current workers on the existing traditional pension plan but would shift incoming employees to a defined contribution plan, akin to a 401(k).

In a defined contribution plan like a 401(k), the employer, worker, or both contribute regularly to a personal account in the worker’s name. Earnings from investments chosen by the worker from a menu of several options also go into the account.

In a defined benefit plan like Nevada’s PERS system, a worker is assured of a specified amount monthly after retirement, determined by her earnings, length of service and age. Though such plans are paid for in part by investments made by the plan’s money managers, the worker’s monthly payment is not affected by the returns on those investments.

PERS has offered an estimate of $790 million in increased contribution rates the first year, plus $18 million in changeover costs if Kirner’s bill is enacted. And PERS officials say the unfunded liability problem is already being solved under an existing plan.

Kirner is skeptical of those numbers. He says that over a decade, the state went from four active employees per retiree to two.

His critics say that defined or deferred contributions and unfunded liabilities are two different issues, and that Kirner is trying to piggyback a new retirement plan on the unfunded liabilities issue. He disagrees, telling one hearing, “This is really a math problem.”

Studies of PERS have generally been positive on the way it is run and the investment returns. When asked about those studies in a committee hearing, Kirner said, “In some respects, it doesn’t matter what that return on investment is.”

Kirner’s GOP colleague, Pat Hickey, has spoken up for 190. “We are not talking about ending PERS as we know it, but saving a public employees retirement system as we’re going to need it in the future,” he said.

The Nebraska case

After the 401(k) as we now know it was authorized by a 1978 congressional enactment, mutual fund managers got dollar signs in their eyes at the size of the market before them. Soon employers all over the nation were selling it to their workers without any idea of whether it would be better or worse for those workers. Many of them still don’t.

Shifts from traditional pension plans to self-investor plans are always sold as empowering wage-earners. “If you are a younger worker, I believe you should be able to set aside part of that money in your own retirement account, so you can build a nest egg for your own future,” said candidate George W. Bush in trying to sell his program for Social Security.

But the evidence indicates that everyday people simply don’t have the know-how for investing that the professional money managers of traditional pension plans have, and that they don’t earn as high returns. So the politicians’ empowerment is the workers’ cut in retirement income.

In 1964—long before Wall Street got interested in foisting 401(k)s on the nation—Nebraska permitted state workers to leave its traditional pension system and instead invest in a defined-contribution plan.

In 2000, an analysis determined that Nebraska’s traditional defined benefit plan had earned average returns of 11 percent. Workers in deferred benefit plans earned returns of 6 to 7 percent.

This was no minor study. It provided the results of a whopping 38 years of experience in both systems.

“The point is that the professional money manager [of the state system] had a better return than what the individual participant could realize by his own allocation of assets,” said Anna Sullivan, executive director of the Nebraska retirement system.

The investment website The Street observed in 2002 that Nebraska “offers an illuminating case study in the risks of giving investing responsibilities to workers. Forty years of lousy returns, under the best of conditions, don’t speak well for 401(k)s.”

Nebraska didn’t just turn its workers loose in the stock market. It gave them day-long instructional workshops on investing in 11 options. But the workers either did not have the time or did not have the interest in investing. Half of them did not make a choice, which meant they went into a default option.

Nor is weak-investing skill the only failing of 401(k)-style plans. “On a personal level, the main reason average Americans do poorly with 401(k) plans is that they don’t invest enough, largely because they have no practical idea of how much they will need for their retirement years,” wrote Hedrick Smith in his book Who Stole the American Dream? “Typically, people underestimate their longevity and how many more people are living into their 80s and 90s. Long life is the upside. The downside is the money it takes to pay for all those extra years.”

Moreover, Smith wrote, “The best-educated, best-paid employees and executives were getting investment returns that were six or seven times greater than the returns for average workers. That gap was compounded year after year.”

But politicians are unlikely to tell members of the public that they are lousy investors.

Many of the Republicans’ assumptions for what they call pension “reform” have foundered on contrary facts. Kirner said his plan offers more portability—workers able to take some of their money with them to their next jobs—because workers are now more mobile and rarely spend a career at one job as they once did. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the percentage of people of retirement age (65 years and older) who have stayed at one job for 10 years or more grew from 48.7 percent to 55 percent over the last 10 years. People are becoming more stable in their jobs, not less. Younger workers, too, are staying at jobs longer than they used to. In addition, portability can be dealt with without going to deferred contributions.

However, Kirner draws attention to the specific case of teachers in Nevada. “Many of them don’t last over five years,” he said.

Kirner also scoffs at the notion that PERS can earn 8 percent, calling it “nuts.” But such returns are routine in state government pension plans, including Nevada’s, which has posted an average annual return of 9.6 percent, according to PERS executive officer Tina Leiss.

In proposing such a shift, Kirner is in all likelihood proposing that state workers retire with a smaller nest egg. Little wonder they have balked at the legislation.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...