Michigan Court: Reduce Pensions or Reduce Retirement Health Benefits

Editor’s Note: Notwithstanding recent court challenges that could go either way, one way to negotiate meaningful steps towards financially sustainable defined benefit pensions, i.e., reductions or suspensions of COLAs, prospective reductions in the multiplier, increased employee contributions towards the unfunded liability and not just towards the normal contribution, etc., is to offer to reduce OPEB (other post employment benefits) instead. From Detroit to Stockton, this option has been part of the discussion. The scale of OPEB liabilities are comparable to unfunded pension liabilities, in some cases, they actually exceed unfunded pension liabilities. But in general, cities, counties and states can exercise more discretion with OPEB commitments when their agencies face severe financial stress than they can with pensions. Leverage is scarce in the world of pension reform, and OPEB is being used. In this article, author Mike Shedlock reports on how this is playing out in Michigan and Illinois – something to be watched closely in California.

Illinois state pension and retirement plans are in dire straits. The only way to fix the problems is with plan changes.

Michigan did that in 2012. And in a 6-0 decision yesterday, the Detroit Free Press reported the Michigan Supreme Court, rejected arguments from unions, and upheld the 2012 state law requiring teachers to put more of their pay toward their pension plans or face cuts to benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court, rejecting arguments from unions, has upheld a 2012 state law requiring teachers and other school employees to put more of their pay toward their pension plans or face cuts to benefits such as post-retirement health care.

The law, backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-controlled Legislature, was intended to cut an estimated $45-billion unfunded liability in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System by more than $15 billion.

The American Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Education Association unions argued the law impaired contracts and amounted to uncompensated takings of pension benefits.

But both the Michigan Supreme Court and the appeals court said the law doesn’t violate a Michigan constitutional provision protecting earned pension benefits, because only future benefits are affected. Also, unlike an earlier law that mandated 3% contributions toward health care, the 2012 law provides an opt-out provision, the court said.

Good News For Illinois

What passes constitutional muster in Michigan may not do so in Illinois, but the unanimous ruling provides a model for what may work elsewhere. This is good news for all cash-strapped states.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner Wants Changes to Insurance Programs for State Workers, Retirees.

Health insurance for active state workers and retirees is being targeted for big savings in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget plan.

“By bringing health care benefits more in line with those received by the taxpayers who pay for them, we save an additional $700 million,” Rauner said Wednesday in his budget speech.

His budget also calls for an end to state subsidies to the health insurance programs for retired downstate teachers and community college workers.

Right Path

Governor Rauner is on the right path. Benefits must be cut. For starters, Illinois needs to move all employees going forward into 401K type plans. Next, Illinois needs to address spiraling costs for those in defined benefit plans.

Michigan passed one law the Michigan Supreme Court rejected, and a second one in 2012 law that was upheld unanimously. Illinois would be wise to pursue changes that are likely to be upheld in court. We now have at least one model that works.

For more on problems in Illinois and what to do about them, please see …

Illinois desperately needs to address the root of its fiscal problems: untenable pension benefits and promises.

Massive proposed tax hikes are not the answer. Tax hikes will do nothing but make already uncompetitive Illinois even more uncompetitive.

About the Author:  Mike Shedlock is the editor of the top-rated global economics blog Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, offering insightful commentary every day of the week. He is also a contributing “professor” on Minyanville, a community site focused on economic and financial education, and a senior fellow with the Illinois Policy Institute.

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