Smithfield: Opinion

How healthy is state pension fund?

Politicians love to scare us.

Whether it’s terrorism, a virus or crime, their message is: Vote for me, or you’re in danger. The challenge for voters is deciding whether the danger is real or imagined.

North Carolinians have a scary issue ahead, and they’ll have to decide if it is real or imagined. Some pols are saying our obligations to the 900,000 members of the retirement systems for teachers and government employees will outrun our reserves. Others say, stay calm, we’re fine.

The state treasurer is responsible for the pension funds, and state voters are about to replace Janet Cowell, who is not seeking reelection. The choices are Democrat Dan Blue III and Republican Dale Folwell. Neither has extreme views on the issue, but their assessments differ.

During their September debate in Statesville, Folwell repeatedly mentioned “unfunded liabilities,” the gap between the state’s projected funds and projected pension payments.

The latest balance of all the funds is about $87.5 billion, and the state paid $5.7 billion in benefits last year. But, as that money goes out, money also comes in from current workers, the state and growth in the retirement fund’s investment portfolio.

The state claims that retirement obligations are 95 percent funded, which means it’s one of the healthiest such systems in the country. But conservatives, including Folwell, say those numbers are flawed. To claim that the fund is 95 percent funded, one must assume a growth rate for the principle of 7.25 percent a year. The growth has been nearly flat for the last two years and didn’t average 7.25 percent over the past 15.

But Blue points out that the state had growth around 14 percent for two years just a few years back. Take the long view, he said.

Folwell wants the projected growth rate at 5.75 percent, while Blue, in the debate, preached calm without a number. Some conservatives have recommended a projected growth rate around two percent.

It is important to remember that there is no due date on the fund. As people retire and draw pensions, others are hired and contribute to the fund. It isn’t about to collapse tomorrow or any time in the foreseeable future.

It is also important to remember, however, that the state’s long-term obligations play an important role in our excellent credit rating. So long as our retirement system is healthy, we will borrow for roads, schools and bridges at low rates.

If growth projections were set at 5.75 percent, three results might occur. The legislature might shrug and do nothing. Changing the projection doesn’t influence the stock market’s future, although it could change how we invest.

Or, with projections of slower growth, the legislature might add money to the system, thus cutting what’s available for other priorities.

Or the state could find a way to legally cut benefits, most likely to future employees.

While the pension fund will always require diligent oversight, it is healthy today and will be for a long time.

Paul T. O’Connor has written about North Carolina state government and politics for 35 years. He teaches in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC.