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250 N. WATER, SUITE 216 | WICHITA, KS 67202 |P (316) 634-0218 | F (316) 440-4806 | WWW.KANSASPOLICY.ORG
Legal Authority to Adjust State Pension Plans
By Ralph BenkoJuly, 2011
Exorbitant retirement benefits are threatening the ability of states and municipalities to deliver essential governmentservices, and, in up to 20 states and hundreds of municipal-ities, are threatening their very solvency.States and municipalities struggle with a trillion, or evenmulti-trillion, dollar crisis of unfunded public employeeretirement benefit obligations. As the
Wall Street Journal’s 
David Wessel] says, “Bankruptcy is a last resort. To avoid it,state and local governments need an alternative that is lessunappealing. They don’t have one yet.”
1
Fortunately, they do have an appealing alternative as isbecoming definitively clear.There is growing bi-partisan recognition that exorbitantretirement benefits granted to civil service unions are threat-ening the ability of states and cities to provide essentialservices without implementing job-destroying tax increases.Indeed, even former San Francisco Mayor and StateAssembly Speaker Willie Brown (D), a staunch public unionsupporter, recognizes that lucrative defined benefit pensionplans are unsustainable. John Fund writes about a columnWillie Brown authored for the
San Francisco Chronicle 
inwhich Brown lamented that civil service was out of control.“The deal used to be that civil servants were paidless than private sector workers in exchange for anunderstanding that they had job security for life. Butwe politicians — pushed by our friends in labor —gradually expanded pay and benefits … whilekeeping the job protections and layering on incredi-bly generous retirement packages.” Brown later toldFund, “When I was Speaker I was in charge of pass-ing spending. When I became mayor I was in chargeof paying for that spending. It was a wake-up call.“
2
Fortunately, a more appealing remedy than bankruptcyexists. It is contained in two U.S. Supreme Court cases,
Energy Reserves Group v. Kansas Power & Light 
and
United States Trust Company of New York v. New Jersey 
. Statesand, with state authority, municipalities, can unilaterallyreduce excess retirement benefits under circumstances nowwidely prevailing. There is a widespread misunderstandingin many states that the U.S. Constitution prohibits theseadjustments, but there is no such prohibition.A story published earlier this year by The Pew Center onthe States confirmed that legislators’ belief that retirementbenefits cannot be modified is only an assumption. “It isuncertain in many states what the constitutional protectionsare because they haven’t been tested or at least thoroughlytested in the courts,” says Ron Snell, director of stateservices at the National Conference of State Legislatures.“But state legislators have assumed the protections to bequite strong.”
3
This assumption that there is constitutionalprohibition against benefit modification is a misunderstand-ing. Case precedent is clear that, under circumstancescurrently prevailing in many places, retirement benefits maybe reduced.The U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the U.S.Constitution lays out the rules by which states may modifytheir contractual obligations. The clear language of thegoverning cases present as directly applicable to thesituation at hand. The cases give clear guidance. (LegalCitations may be found on page 3.)There are scores of state and lower federal court casesholding against attempts to modify vested pension benefits.Upon examination, few, if any, of these cases were broughton the grounds set forth as applicable by the U.S. SupremeCourt. Accordingly, these state and lower court cases areirrelevant to the current circumstances. They were special,very narrow, cases that did not spring from legislative actionto remedy a broad and general social or economic problem.The governing law may be summarized as follows:
A state may impair a contractual right if it has a signifi-cant and legitimate public purpose such as remedying abroad and general social or economic problem, such as elimination of unfores een windfall profits. A state may do so as an exercise of its police power. A contractual impairment may be constitutional if it is reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose.
1Wall Street Journal, “Local Debts Defy Easy Solution”, published September 23, 2010 and available athttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704814204575507842266619222.html2Wall Street Journal, “Willie Brown Repents”, published July 9, 2010 and available athttp://www.flashreport.org/blog0a.php?postID=2010070913203547&authID=20050816220250423Stateline, The Pew Center on the States, “Activists seek new tactics to break old pension deals,”published January 7, 2011 and available at http://www.stateline.org/live/printable/story?contentId=540089
 
KANSAS POLICY INSTITUTE
|
250 N. WATER, SUITE 216
|
 WICHITA, KS 67202
|
P (316) 634-0218
|
KANSASPOLICY.ORG
Legal Authority to Adjust State Pension Plans
2
When a state reduces an obligation, the courts willinquire as to whether the adjustment of “the rightsand responsibilities of contracting parties is basedupon reasonable conditions and is of a characterappropriate to the public purpose justifying the legis-lation’s adoption. Courts properly defer to legislativejudgment as to the necessity and reasonableness of aparticular measure.”When a state impairs its own contractual obligations(as is the case with retirement benefits promises) thecourts and certain other material factors come intoplay. The courts will hold the state to a somewhathigher standard of scrutiny as to the policy’s necessityand reasonableness. Therefore, a prospering state witha well-funded retirement plan could not arbitrarily cutpromised benefits. But a state struggling to the pointof eliminating essential services or facing insolvencycertainly may, under the law, modify existingretirement benefits.Furthermore, it is entirely settled law that one legisla-ture may not abridge the powers of a succeedinglegislature and cannot bargain away the police powerof a state. So, in addition to the realistic reading of the contracts clause itself, and as recognized by theSupreme Court, an independent doctrine holds thatthe Constitution’s contract clause does not require astate to adhere to a contract that surrenders anessential attribute of sovereignty.The classic doctrine that one legislature cannotabridge the powers of a succeeding legislature norbargain away its police power permits states toreduce their public employee pension obligationsunder the circumstances now besetting many states.The law does not permit a state to impair itscontractual obligations arbitrarily or with impunity.The courts will look into whether a proposedimpairment is reasonable and necessary to “servean important public purpose”. Modifying existingpension benefits because the cost of providing themthreatens a state or municipality’sability to provideessential services or precipitating insolvency certainlyrises to the standard of “remedying a broad andgeneral social or economic problem.”According to several well accepted doctrines and theclear holdings of the United States Supreme Court, if a state or, with a state’s authority, a municipality findsitself confronting a severe fiscal challenge based onexorbitant retirement pension obligations it is wellwithin its inherent police powers to reduce its obliga-tions to a reasonable level.The courts will not rubber-stamp an arbitrary deci-sion. Yet it is conceptually impossible to imagine acourt finding that a reduction of such benefits to pri-vate sector levels for retirees of comparable circum-stances to be ‘unreasonable,’ especially when the costof providing those benefits threatens the ability toprovide essential services. Evidence of reasonablenessand necessity of such reductions includes:
1.
extensive studies by respected nonpartisaninstitutes;
2.
reports from respected media sources from acrossthe political spectrum;
3.
critiques by elected officials nationwide, both lib-eral and conservative, Democrat and Republican,of unjustifiably extravagant retirement benefits;
4
.the documented growing inability of states andmunicipalities burdened by the cost of theseretirement benefits to provide essential govern-ment services or maintain solvency.Taken together, these factors are highly persuasivethat it is reasonable and necessary to adjust certainstates’ and municipalities’ pension obligations to themedian level of private sector comparable positions.The powerto unilaterally, though reasonably, reducebenefits provides a great deal more latitude forofficials than many knew they had. By taking thispower into account, the executive branch officialsand legislators in many states will find themselvespositioned with many new options that they had notrealized were available. Recognizing that, publicofficials simply may choose to reduce benefits of public workers to demonstrably reasonable levels.Or perhaps it will prove to be more politicallypalatable to set up a special commission to assessand implement the appropriate cuts. Alternatively,this newfound power might open a means by whichto persuade state workers to accept solutions such asbuyouts that will allow for a generally acceptablereduction of benefits. A good faith demonstration isall a state needs to reduce retirement benefits. This issimply done by showing they are implementing aremedy to a general economic problem and that suchreductions are necessary and reasonable.
 
KANSAS POLICY INSTITUTE
|
250 N. WATER, SUITE 216
|
 WICHITA, KS 67202
|
P (316) 634-0218
|
KANSASPOLICY.ORG
Legal Authority to Adjust State Pension Plans
3
Legal Citations
Following are key, verbatimexcerpts from the twoauthoritative governing U.S. Supreme Court casesinterpreting the U.S. Constitution’s contracts clause:
Energy Reserves Group v. Kansas Power & Light 
459U. S. 400 (1983) and
United States Trust Company of New York v. New Jersey 
431 U.S. 1 (1977).
Energy Reserves Group v. Kansas Power and Light
The threshold inquiry is “whether the state law has,in fact, operated as a substantial impairment of acontractual relationship.”
Allied Structural Steel Co.… See United States Trust Co. …
The severity of theimpairment is said to increase the level of scrutiny towhich the legislation will be subjected.
Allied Structural Steel Co. …
Total destruction of contractualexpectations is not necessary for a finding of substan-tial impairment.
United States Trust Co. …
On theother hand, state regulation that restricts a party togains it reasonably expected from the contract doesnot necessarily constitute a substantial impairment. Indetermining the extent of the impairment, we are toconsider whether the industry the complaining partyhas entered has been regulated in the past.
Allied Structural Steel Co.
(“When he purchased into anenterprise already regulated in the particular to whichhe now objects, he purchased subject to furtherlegislation upon the same topic”). The Court long agoobserved: “One whose rights, such as they are, aresubject to state restriction, cannot remove them fromthe power of the State by making a contract aboutthem.”
Hudson Water Co. v. McCarter …— 
If the state regulation constitutes a substantialimpairment, the State, in justification, must have asignificant and legitimate public purpose behind theregulation,
UnitedStates Trust Co.
such as theremedying of a broad and general social or economicproblem.
Allied Structural Steel Co …
Furthermore,since Blaisdell, the Court has indicated that the pub-lic purpose need not be addressed to an emergencyor temporary situation.
United States Trust Co. …
Onelegitimate state interest is the elimination of unfore-seen windfall profits.
United States Trust Co. …
Therequirement of a legitimate public purpose guaranteesthat the State is exercising its police power, ratherthan providing a benefit to special interests.Once a legitimate public purpose has been identified,the next inquiry is whether the adjustment of “therights and responsibilities of contracting parties [isbased] upon reasonable conditions and [is] of acharacter appropriate to the public purpose justifying[the legislation’s] adoption.”
United States Trust Co.
Unless the State itself is a contracting party …”[a]s is customary in reviewing …economic andsocial regulation … courts properly defer to legisla-tive judgment as to the necessity and reasonablenessof a particular measure …”For a State to impair its own contractual obligation,a somewhat more stringent test must be met, as setforth in
United States Trust Company of New York v.New Jersey 
:Although the Contract Clause appears literallyto proscribe “any” impairment, this Courtobserved in Blaisdell that “the prohibition is notan absolute one and is not to be read withliteral exactness like a mathematical formula.”… an impairment may be constitutional if it isreasonable and necessary to serve an impor-tant public purpose.
United States Trust Co. of New York v. New Jersey
Although the Contract Clause appears literally toproscribe “any” impairment, this Court observed inBlaisdell that “the prohibition is not an absolute oneand is not to be read with literal exactness like amathematical formula.” Thus, a finding that there hasbeen a technical impairment is merely a preliminarystep in resolving the more difficult question whetherthat impairment is permitted under the Constitution.In the instant case, as in Blaisdell, we must attemptto reconcile the strictures of the Contract Clausewith the “essential attributes of sovereignpower,”necessarily reserved by the States to safeguard thewelfare of their citizens …
— 
Yet private contracts are not subject to unlimitedmodification under the police power. The Court inBlaisdell recognized that laws intended to regulateexisting contractual relationships must serve a legiti-mate public purpose … A State could not “adopt asits policy the repudiation of debts or the destructionof contracts or the denial of means to enforce them.”Legislation adjusting the rights and responsibilities of contracting parties must be upon reasonable condi-tions and of a character appropriate to the publicpurpose justifying its adoption … As is customary inreviewing economic and social regulation, however,courts properly defer to legislative judgment as to thenecessity and reasonableness of a particular measure.
East New York Savings Bank v.Hahn …— 

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