Over the next 44 years, state and local governments face chronic budget shortfalls driven by Medicaid spending, government employee health care costs, and underfunded pensions, warns the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a report issued earlier this month.
“Absent any intervention or policy changes, state and local governments are facing, and will continue to face, a gap between receipts and expenditures in coming years,” states the report. Closing that gap would require cutting spending by 3.3%, increasing revenues by a like amount, or implementing some combination of the two, stated the report.
Budgets eventually will come back into balance around 2060 when the demographic bulge of the Baby Boomer population passes from the scene, reducing pressure on Medicaid and pensions. However, fiscal pressures could become acute long before then.
The increase in health care expenditures will be relentless, drip-drip-drip year after year, driven not only by the cost of delivering care but the cost of providing care to an aging poor population. Unfunded pension liabilities are easier to sweep under the rug in the short-term but could become a crisis as pension funds burn through their accumulated assets.
States the GAO report:
While most state and local government pension plans have assets sufficient to cover benefit payments to retirees for a decade or more, plans have experienced a growing gap between assets and liabilities over the longer term. Our simulations suggest that state and local governments will need to increase their pension contributions, absent any changes to benefits or employee contributions in the future. Alternatively, state and local governments may need to take steps to manage their pension obligations by reducing benefits or increasing employees’ contributions.
Bacon’s bottom line: Analyzing the state/local government sector as a whole, the GAO report did not differentiate between the states. Clearly, some states will experience more severe budget shortfalls than others. My impression is that Virginia is better off than the average but that we still face a reckoning.
Virginia’s exposure to higher Medicaid costs should be less than the national average because Republican legislators blocked Governor Terry McAuliffe’s bid to expand the program as encouraged by the Affordable Care Act. Long-term, Virginia would have been responsible for funding 10% of the expansion. There is a trade-off, of course. The Old Dominion is foregoing an injection of federal dollars to fund medical coverage for the near-poor.
Also, Virginia did reform its state/local government pension plans under the McDonnell administration, keeping the old “defined benefit” plan for older state employees but implementing a hybrid defined benefit/defined contribution plan for new employees. State funding to the Virginia Retirement System also assumes a 7% annual return on VRS’s investment portfolio, less than the 7.5% assumed by other states. The actual return likely will be lower, I have argued, requiring everyone to pony up more cash than expected. Regardless, Virginia’s adjustment to economic reality will be less traumatic than that of many other states.
Meanwhile, House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, has been exploring a second round of reform at VRS. The state could save millions of dollars a year by paying less to outside money managers. Also, Howell has backed a 401(k)-like defined contribution plan for new employees, which shifts the risk of under-performing stock and bond indices from the state to employees.
Press reports have suggested that Howell is having difficulty getting traction. Perhaps Virginia should emulate the Social Security and Medicare Trust Fund trustees who annually publish projections of how long the Social Security and Medicare trust funds will last before the money runs out. It would be useful to know (1) how long the money in the Virginia Retirement System will last before the coffers run dry, (2) how much it will cost the state at that point to restore benefits to promised levels. Such knowledge might focus Virginians’ attention on the need to act sooner rather than later.
(Hat tip: Tim Wise.)