Voters worried that Congress and the White House can’t tame federal borrowing may be overlooking another big debt bomb closer to home.
States are falling further behind in the money they owe public employee pension funds, leaving taxpayers on the hook, according to the latest analysis from S&P Global Ratings, which tracks state debts.
Despite recent stock market gains, state governments are not setting aside enough money to keep up with the rising liability of paying public worker pensions and other retirement benefits, according to the latest data.
In all but two states (Michigan and Alabama), the money set aside as a share of what’s needed fell last year to an average ratio of 68 percent. That means states have funded just 68 cents for every dollar they owe in future payments.
New Jersey has set aside just 31 percent of what it needs to pay pensions costs. Kentucky, (31 percent) Illinois (36 percent) Connecticut (41 percent) and Hawaii (541 percent) are the worst off.
States with the best funding levels include Wisconsin (98 percent), South Dakota (97 percent), New York (93 percent), Tennessee (88 percent) and North Carolina (87 percent).
Payments for state debt and pension liabilities are already taking up a bigger share of annual state spending, putting added pressure to raise taxes or cut other spending. In Illinois, about 32 cents of every dollar of revenue goes to pay interest on state debt along with contributions to fund pensions and other retirement benefits.
In Oklahoma, Connecticut, Hawaii Maryland and New Jersey debt and pension costs consumer 20 cents or more of all state spending.
States that have fallen behind on their pension obligations have been underfunding their pensions for years. Many have also used outdated investment forecasts that count on unrealistic returns.
Some states have implemented pension reforms, closing their funds to new employees and freezing existing plans. But those measures have also cut contributions from active workers, reducing new funding to pay workers who have already retired.
Eventually, those liabilities will have to be met. And the burden on individual taxpayers varies widely from one state to another.
In New Jersey, the funding gap represents nearly 42 percent of the Garden State’s Gross State Product – or more than $27,000 for every resident, according to S&P Global Ratings.
Other underfunded states include Connecticut ($22,700 per person), Hawaii ($15,700), Illinois ($15,900) and Alaska ($18,200)
That compares with Nebraska, where the underfunding represents just $242 for every resident. Taxpayers in South Dakota ($598 per person), Idaho ($472), Iowa ($752), and Tennessee ($806) also face relatively low risk of having to make up for unfunded state liabilities.
State pension funds continue to fall behind. Here's how much you owe