In its first securities fraud case against a state, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has accused the state of New Jersey of misleading investors by hiding the underfunding of its two biggest pension plans. The situation in New Jersey is far from isolated, and many legal analysts believe similar lawsuits against other states will soon be forthcoming.
New Jersey settled the SEC’s claims without admitting or denying any wrongdoing.
As reported Aug. 18 by Bloomberg, New Jersey is the third-most-indebted state in the country, behind California and New York, with $37.7 billion in gross tax-supported debt outstanding. Its $66.9 billion pension system includes seven funds, which were underfunded by $46 billion as of June 30, 2009.
Nationwide, state pension systems were underfunded by at least $500 billion in 2008, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States. The report, The Trillion Dollar Gap, says that in 2000, slightly more than half of the states had fully funded pension systems. By 2006, that number had shrunk to six states. By 2008, only four—Florida, New York, Washington and Wisconsin—could make that claim.
The consequences of severely underfunded public sector retirement benefit systems translate into lower bond ratings, higher taxes and less money available for essential public services.
The one upside to the underfunding issue is the attention being generated for new reforms. Many states are now taking action to change how retirement benefits are set, how they are funded and how costs are managed.