massachusetts is not quite the public pension paradise that it’s often made out to be. In fiscal 2005, we ranked 15th in the total amount of paid benefits divided by the number of beneficiaries, which is rather modest given the high cost of living here. (“The pension system is not overly generous for typical employees,” concluded the Pioneer Institute in a report on public pensions last year, before emphasizing that it is “riddled” with exceptions that “abuse the system and collect unwarranted benefits.”) If you compare annual benefits with each state’s median household income, Oregon is the most generous and Vermont-with New Hampshire not far behind —is the most tight-fisted.
At 20 percent, we rank 18th in the share of pension-plan revenue that comes from state and local government, as opposed to employee contributions (13 percent, as seen on the chart at right.) and earnings on investments (67 percent, somewhat worse than the 74 percent national average). West Virginia, dubbed the “poster child for sickly public pensions” in 2005 by Business Week, relies most heavily on government contributions, with employees kicking in 8 percent of revenue and earnings on investments accounting for a pathetic 39 percent. New Jersey pensions put the least stress on government coffers, with employees directly contributing 18 percent of revenue and earnings bringing in a robust 78 percent.
The Bay State is more of an outlier when it comes to local vs. state control of public pension systems. In 2004-05, local governments held 28 percent of all cash and investment holdings in public pensions here, higher than in any state except Illinois and New York. By contrast, New Jersey’s local pensions held only 0.2 percent of all holdings. Because Massachusetts has so many public pension plans administered by local governments (for a statewide total of 100 plans, by the last Census estimate), the average enrollment is quite low by national standards, leading to questions of whether consolidation might lead to more efficiency and more uniform returns on investments. But our retirement funds aren’t nearly as fractured as they are in Pennsylvania, which has a staggering 925 public pension plans—or one for every 609 enrollees.