After nine stops and who knows how many thousands of dollars spent, Colorado PERA finished up its listening tour last month. In its latest “PERA On the Issues” newsletter, we learned about the profound insights gleaned from the roadshow.
On second thought, strike the ‘profound.’
Ostensibly, the purpose of “PERAtour” was to gather input from PERA members about “what the future should look like,” given that PERA’s retirement funds are sinking into deeper trouble year by year. Some fixes are coming, to be sure. Before PERA’s board of trustees decides whether to increase employer (aka taxpayer) contributions, employee contributions, raise the retirement age, reduce or freeze cost-of-living adjustments, or do something more creative (unlikely), they deemed it wise to take the pulse of its membership.
Here’s what they heard, as reported by the newsletter:
“PERA “should be a retirement plan that:
- “Calculates retirement benefits in line with career paths and contributions.” Some 87 percent of the 900-plus attendees agreed.
- “Serves as a tool for employers to attract and retain top quality talent.” 83 percent liked that one.
- “Allows retirees to maintain their standard of living throughout their lifetime.” 91 percent thumbs-up.
- “Requires shared responsibility among members, retirees and employers.”80 percent said yes to this.
- “Is fair and attractive to future public employees.” 90 percent agreement here.
Let’s step back from the blinding brilliance of these insights and try to read the tea leaves. What have we learned from these findings?
That PERA members are skeptical of defined contribution plans, and want to keep their defined benefits (bullet #1, and to some extent bullet #2). No shock there, though its a shortsighted position to take, and ultimately self-defeating.
That an overwhelming percentage of retirees and PERA members don’t want COLA’s curtailed (maintaining their standard of living throughout their lifetimes).
That the upcoming changes will cause pain, and that pain should be shared (in apparent contradiction of the point above).
That the unsustainably rich benefits shouldn’t be changed for future employees (the last bullet point and the point about attracting and retaining top talent).
It’s true that public sector employees in many cases are paid less for similar work than those in the private sector. But that doesn’t mean that municipalities and states should bankrupt themselves trying to level this playing field.
Perhaps what the PERA staff wanted from its tour was to return home with such vague, bland, general findings that they can essentially disregard them when formulating recommendations.
Or, more likely, it provides an opportunity to draw a bright line not to be crossed, which means pushing for only the most incremental changes. That will keep current members and retirees happy, while kicking the can down the road yet again. Thus dooming future state workers and teachers to a paltry, penurious retirement. But that’s for some future public body to worry about.