Some variation on this idea could ultimately appeal to other states grappling with their own exploding pension costs and, in extreme cases, quietly looking for help from Washington. In troubled states, some employees have wondered whether they might be allowed to begin paying in and collecting from the federal system even before they have contributed a career’s worth of taxes.
The potential effect on the Social Security program is hard to estimate. Maine’s proposal would mean new members and a small additional source of payroll tax revenue for the federal system.
Even if it fully embraces the proposal, Maine will have to come up with a considerable sum to sustain its existing pension plan, presumably through some combination of taxes and service cuts. After a phase-in period, Social Security would cover part of state retirees’ benefits, with the state pension as the remainder. Many pension plans in corporate America coordinate their benefits in this way.
The proposal has the advantage of not reducing promised benefits, guaranteed by the constitution in many states. The change would not be cheap, but it would reduce the role of Maine’s pension fund and thus the risk of having to suddenly cover giant losses down the road.
A Social Security spokesman said the agency did not expect many of the holdout states to join, citing the cost of participation. The only other state known to have talked recently about adding Social Security is Louisiana.
More than six million public employees work outside the Social Security system, including roughly 1.7 million teachers in California, Illinois and Texas, and nearly two million employees of all types in Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada and Ohio, as well as Louisiana and Maine. For years, these and other states have insisted they could provide richer pensions at a lower cost, both to workers and taxpayers, because of investments.
Some of those states’ pension plans now have shortfalls so large that they need outsize contributions. Virtually all state pension funds have had big losses in the last two years, but the go-it-alone states appear especially vulnerable.
Not only are these states trying to provide richer benefits with smaller contributions than the payroll tax for Social Security, but they have promised to do it for workers who can retire 10 and sometimes 20 years younger.
With pension costs ballooning and taxpayers lashing out, many workers in states with deeply underfunded plans fear their benefits will be cut. Those being asked to put more into their pension funds complain they feel caught up in Ponzi schemes. Some wish they had been part of Social Security after all.
“Had I known back then, I would not have stayed in Illinois,” said John Gebhardt, a university employee in that state, which keeps teachers and university personnel out of Social Security. He has even offered to pay both his own and his employer’s payroll tax to join Social Security, but was told no.
Maine lawmakers who support shifting state workers into Social Security say they believe it would be fairer. Social Security may not be sexy, but it is portable.
A recent study in Maine underscored the penalty paid by the mobile work force. Only one in five state employees stays around long enough to get a full pension. The majority leave, taking neither a pension nor any Social Security credits with them. This practice, not investment gains, has sustained the state’s pension system.