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WASHINGTON -- While Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has painted a dire picture of his state's pension obligations, Wisconsin's pension fund for public employees is among the nation's strongest, according to a report by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
The Pew report, issued last year, concluded that Wisconsin is a "national leader in managing its long-term liabilities for both pension and retiree health care." Walker has cited the fund's lack of sustainability as grounds for his plan to revoke collective bargaining rights for state employees, but that proposal has sparked outrage among state employees and drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the state's capitol.
"We're going to ask our state and local workers ... to pay a little bit more, to sacrifice, to help to balance this budget," Walker said in a Sunday interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace, adding that he would be forced to lay off 5,000 to 6,000 state employees if his budget plan was not approved, as well as a comparable number of local public employees.
But the Wisconsin pension fund is simply not in fiscal trouble. Its managers weren't burned by subprime mortgage assets or mortgage-backed securities as the housing bubble collapsed. The fund also relies on an automated dividend system, which pays out benefits in years the system is making gains while restricting payouts in years when it takes losses. And while the pension fund had a rough year during 2008 due to stock market losses, it remains robust, both in terms of fundamental financial stability and in comparison to other state pension programs.
According to the Pew study, Wisconsin had about $77 billion in total pension liabilities in 2008. But according to that same Pew study, those liabilities were 99.67 percent "funded," giving Wisconsin one of the four-highest of such ratios in the nation. Other states had funding ratios as low as 54 percent. For comparison, expert analysts and the Government Accountability Office consider an 80 percent level to be a good benchmark for pension fund stability, while Fitch Ratings considers 70 percent adequate.