On public policy, New Hampshire should always beat Vermont, as a matter of principle. That goes double for the handling of money. The state that sends a self-proclaimed “socialist” to the U.S. Senate should never get to say it’s more responsible with a dollar.

New Hampshire has bragging rights here. The Granite State is 12th in the Mercatus Center’s ranking of states by fiscal condition. Maine is 34th, Vermont 39th, Massachusetts 47th. 

And yet there’s one area where New Hampshire and Vermont are uncomfortably close: the Pew Center’s national ranking of the best-funded state retirement systems. Both states are down in the 30s, with less than 70 percent of their pension liabilities funded. 

So Vermont officials might have watched approvingly on Wednesday when the House advanced a bill that would worsen the financial position of the New Hampshire Retirement System. 

Instead of edging the State Employee Retirement System closer to the point at which it might some day have enough money to pay what the state owes its retirees, House Bill 1205 would edge us slightly in the opposite direction.

The state’s retirement system ended the 2019 fiscal year 64.8% funded. The system hasn’t been above 70% funded since 2004. Vermont has two state retirement systems, one for state employees, which is just over 70% funded, and a separate system for teachers, which is funded at about 54%. Pew’s latest ranking (using 2017 data), puts Vermont at 64.3% funded.

By contrast, Maine is a Northern New England lighthouse beacon of frugality, with 82% of its obligations funded. 

HB 1205 would nudge New Hampshire downward by eliminating an existing 10% reduction in retiree benefits that kicks in for Group 1 employees (general government employees and teachers) at age 65. The bill would cost the retirement system $37 million, according to its fiscal note. It would cause a slight (less than half a percentage point) increase in government contributions to the system (that is, taxpayer contributions).

When the mandatory cut was passed into law in 1988, 65 was the Social Security retirement age. The age has since inched up to between 66 and 67 years for retirees born in 1938 or later, but state law has kept the pension reduction pegged to age 65.

As a technical update, one can see the logic behind HB 1205. But that logic doesn’t generate its own money. The bill includes no funding to pay for its increased cost.

It’s a $37 million “giveaway,” Rep. Carol McGuire said when speaking against the bill. 

McGuire wasn’t able to convince her colleagues to vote against the bill. But she did succeed in tabling a bigger one, HB 1341. That bill contains a lot of changes, the largest being that it would raise the contribution rate for a large chunk of Group II employees by changing the formula for calculating their pensions. Municipalities would be hit with a large, mandatory increase in their retirement contributions. 

The bill as originally drafted would have added $142 million in unfunded liabilities to the State Retirement System. An amended version on the House floor on Wednesday had no fiscal note, but legislators say it would cost less than the original. 

Supporters tried and failed to remove the bill from the table on Wednesday, so it remains in limbo for now.

Though New Hampshire’s general frugality has kept the state from issuing the sorts of lavish unfunded promises to state employees that have made jokes of the retirement systems in Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey, most state pension funds are more fully funded than ours. 

Recent returns indicate that loading the system with more unfunded promises would be particularly risky this year. The retirement system’s rate of return on investment was only 5.7% last year, below the assumed 7.25% and well below the previous year’s 8.9%. That translates into a $229 million (32%) drop in investment income from 2018 to 2019.

The retirement system has a plan to move toward full funding over the next two decades, but it relies on hitting investment revenue targets. Consistently lower market returns, like last year’s, and adding large unfunded liabilities would throw off the plan.

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