Public Pensions as Property Rights

On Thursday I noted that former California House Speaker Willie Brown said we shouldn’t worry about the cost of government workers’ pensions because “My guess is that the State of California, like most places involved with pensions, is going to cease to pay them.”

My former colleague Andrew Biggs, writing at The American, says Speaker Brown and I are, believe it or not, too optimistic:

In most states, accrued public-sector pension benefits carry an effective property right, either through legal rulings or outright constitutional provisions. As Donald Kohn, the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, put it, “For all intents and purposes, accrued benefits have turned out to be riskless obligations.”

Some states interpret these rights as prospective, meaning that not only does a public-sector employee have a right to the benefits he’s already earned, but he has a right to continue earning benefits at the same rate no matter how financially unsustainable the pension formula may be. These provisions make state pension benefits far more assured than even Social Security, which the federal government can legally cut at anytime.

Plus, he says, the pension shortfalls are even larger than most analysts think.

Resume worrying.