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NJ Public Worker Pension Debt Among the Worst in US, Report Says
Updated On: Aug 14, 2015 - TRENTON - New Jersey's public pension debt accounted for about 5 percent of the nearly $1 trillion funding shortfall in public-sector retirement systems across the country, according to new 2013 data from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Pension debt across all 50 states rose $54 billion from 2012 to 2013. Twenty-two states managed to shed debt, while 19 — including New Jersey — increased theirs and nine had no change, according to Pew, which compiled data from 238 retirement systems.

The Pew report pegged New Jersey's pension debt in 2013 as $51 billion in 2013. Overall, it said New Jersey's pension funding level ranked 35th in the U.S., falling five spots from a year earlier.

The report said unfunded liabilities, or the difference between how much money states have for benefits and what it would cost to cover promised benefits, continue to grow in many states that have failed to make full contributions and are still reeling from investment losses.

That includes New Jersey, which in 2013 had 62.8 percent of what it would need to cover what's been promised to retired and current public workers. That's down from 64.5 percent in 2012 and 67.5 percent in 2011, according to the data. This "funding ratio" of all 238 retirement systems was 71.8 percent. 

An NJ Advance Media review of actuarial reports for New Jersey pension plans for 2014, the most recent data available, shows a 61.2 percent funding ratio for the state and local portions of seven government employee pension plans.

New Jersey leaders habitually underfund the pension system, contributing much less than actuaries suggest to keep the funds solvent. The state will contribute $1.3 billion this fiscal year, while actuaries recommend more than $4 billion.

In 2013, New Jersey contributed 47 percent of what actuaries said was needed, the report said. As a whole, the 238 pension plans across the nation contributed 80 percent. 

The New Jersey pension system lost $17 billion in the dot-com collapse, but enacted pension reforms in 2011 to force workers and the state to pay more into the system that were estimated to save $121 billion over 30 years. But when the economy and tax revenues grew slower than expected, Gov. Chris Christie slashed state payments into the system.

The 2013 data doesn't capture more recent investment returns, and preliminary 2014 data indicate shortfalls are improving somewhat, the report said.

"The good news from the 2014 data is an expected reduction in states' unfunded pension liabilities and strong investment returns," said Greg Mennis, director of Pew's public sector retirement systems project. "But there's still a high level of debt, and policymakers cannot count on uncertain returns to close the gap."

This article appeared on authored by Samantha Marcus.

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