By Stephen Winham
I was among a distinct minority of people in state government who thought adding DROP to our state retirement systems was a bad idea for the state from the outset. It clearly provided a good benefit for employees at a time when state salaries were not nearly so generous as today, but I was concerned about the real costs, not just to retirement systems, but to agencies’ active payrolls. I was also concerned about real and perceived inequities resulting from employees making decisions they would later regret. In my opinion, the existence of DROP in state retirement systems has generally failed to benefit the state financially or otherwise – And I find the whole concept of “Back DROP”, the State Police Retirement System option recently publicized in conjunction with the controversy over SB 294 of 2014, ridiculous on its face.
DROP for our state retirement systems seemed to at least have sensible goals when originally implemented and estimating the fiscal impact seemed relatively easy for an actuary. Simply put, an employee, who would otherwise be entitled to retire, continued working and drawing a pay check. The amount that would have been paid the retired employee in monthly retirement checks was frozen at that level and went into a DROP account each month while the employee continued to draw a salary. The employee did not have to make contributions to his/her retirement system while in DROP, so s/he got an immediate increase in net pay and could continue to get raises, though they would not increase the retirement benefit amount. When the employee actually retired s/he could get the balance in the DROP account and begin to receive monthly retirement checks.
DROP was sold as a way to retain experienced employees for a period of time beyond when they might otherwise actually retire by providing them with an additional incentive. It was also supposed to accomplish the almost contradictory goal of encouraging higher paid employees to actually retire at the end of DROP participation. This would reduce the amount of money necessary for salaries overall and/or create additional promotional opportunities and openings for other employees.
So, DROP was viewed by most as a simple, predictable benefit for both the state and its employees. But, guess what? It has rarely worked that way and the reality of the way it does work begs the following questions:
- How many people who participate in DROP would have really retired, when eligible, in its absence? Based on experience, the answer is very few. Therefore, the major ostensible advantage of DROP to the state, retention of experienced employees, would not seem to have actually been a state issue.
- How many state employees with retirement eligibility are indispensable? Again, my answer would be very few. A significant percentage of indispensable employees would indicate gross understaffing, poor management planning, or both.
- How many people who enter DROP actually retire at the end of DROP participation? My guess, again based on experience, would be significantly fewer than originally projected.
Because employees can come out of DROP and continue to work without skipping a beat, any expected salaries savings can evaporate quickly. In fact, high salaried people not already eligible for the absolute maximum in retirement benefits often continue to work an additional minimum of 3 years so they can start to accrue additional benefits to be paid as supplements to their “frozen” regular retirement checks. So, ultimate liabilities of the retirement systems are harder to project and salaries on the active payroll are often higher than they would have been otherwise.
The new option Colonel Mike Edmonson apparently wanted to take advantage of via SB 294 only exists in the State Police Retirement System and is called “Back DROP”. I had never heard of this before and still find it hard to believe it exists and was actually recommended by an actuary. It does absolutely nothing DROP was intended to do except encourage some people to simply work longer.
If I understand it correctly, under “Back DROP” the employee starts thinking about retiring and how to game the retirement system to his/her best financial advantage. As retirement eligibility approaches, s/he gets the system to run numbers so s/he can make the best choice when s/he actually retires between the following:
1. Pretending s/he entered DROP up to 3 years ago (going back to the future, in other words); or
2. Getting a lifetime benefit based on the highest average salary
Does that sound anything like DROP to you? Me, neither. It sounds like having your cake and eating it, too. Those eligible can’t possibly make the wrong decision – for them – and no pesky actuarial reductions in benefits like the Initial Benefit Option (IBO) that is available to all retirees.
Go to the following link, scroll down to “BACK DROP Plan – Only for Members Eligible for DROP after 10/01/2009” and see how you interpret the option: http://lsprs.org/retirement/options/
Now, think about it. How is it possible to get in the ballpark of figuring out how to adequately fund a benefit that doesn’t actually defer anything and lets those eligible choose the best option for them at the last possible moment? How must the thousands of people who retired under regular DROP plans in all state retirement systems feel about the ability of anybody else to have this open-ended option?
Our retirement systems have total unfunded accrued liabilities of some $19 Billion. These liabilities did not crop up overnight but must, under existing law, be liquidated by 2029. How can any legislative action that extends state retirement benefits to those not previously eligible for them possibly do anything to help address this problem?
As Everett Dirksen said, “A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.” In Louisiana, we don’t seem to get the simple truth of that, and not just in our retirement policies.