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Crisis looming for state teacher pensions?

February 22, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Is a crisis looming over California teacher pensions? The state's expensive retirement fund will take a lot to keep it solvent. Could taxpayers be left holding the bag?

If no changes are made, the California State Teachers' Retirement System, known as CalSTRS, will be broke in 30 years, and will increasingly rely on taxpayers to bail it out.

Almost $1.3 billion of the state's general fund this year goes toward the teacher pension fund.

"Eleven-thousand dollars per teacher per year for the next 15 years is what we need in order to keep the plan from going broke," said Marcia Fritz, president, Calif. Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility.

The median benefit for new retirees is $49,000 a year, or 60 percent of pay.

Right now, the state is kicking in one dollar for every two that teachers and their school districts each pay into the retirement fund.

The shortage has worsened because teacher layoffs have meant fewer people paying into the system while benefits were expanded, leading to $40 billion in unfunded liabilities by 2042.

"There is no immediate crisis for us right now," said CalSTRS Spokesman Patrick Hill.

Pension fund managers say there's still time to act.

"For now, we're in good shape. We can pay these benefits for 30 years, but the longer we wait to craft a solution, the more expensive it will be," said Hill.

Lawmakers have been slow to act since the teachers union is one of the major contributors to Democrats, who control Sacramento's agenda.

Some of the solutions include reducing retirement benefits for not just new employees, but for current teachers, and maybe even switching to a 401(k)-style plan.

Eighteen-year veteran Maggie Ellis can't believe part of the discussion is to ask workers to contribute more even after a couple of rounds of pay cuts.

"I don't know that anybody is going to want to come into teaching. At this point, I'm barely making my bills as it is," said Ellis, an Elk Grove resident.

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