By LAWRENCE MONE
NEW YORK POST - December 1, 2011
Gov. Cuomo, under enormous pressure from public-employee unions and Democrats in the Legislature to extend New York’s “millionaires’ tax,” is considering at least some higher taxes on higher incomes. The big irony here is that much of the money raised from any “millionaire” tax hikes would go to fund the growing phenomenon of public-sector millionaires.
How’s that? Well, most dictionaries define a millionaire as someone with wealth (i.e., assets) of $1 million. By that definition, many New York teachers and the vast majority of police and firefighters are millionaires, because the “net present value” of their retirement benefits is well in excess of $1 million.
That is, if they had to fund their retirements from their own savings, they’d have to set aside seven figures today.
Few who don’t work for the government sector have comparable assets. Over the last several decades, the private sector has moved increasingly to the 401(k)-style “defined contribution” model, which yields a retirement nest egg based on what both employers and employees have contributed to individual accounts.
Public-sector workers, on the other hand, still rely on “defined benefit” pensions, which provide a guaranteed stream of income based on career longevity and late-career peak salaries.
A New York City public-school teacher earning $100,000 can retire at 55 with a pension of $60,000. A private-sector worker would need $1.2 million to buy an annuity with the same yield and starting at the same (relatively young) age, according to the online pension calculator developed by the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center.
It would take an even larger nest egg to replicate the pension income of city police officers, who typically retire in their 40s. According to data posted at SeeThroughNY, an Empire Center Web site, the average newly retired city cop collects a pension of $58,563 — plus a $12,000 annual supplement.
(Of course, public-sector workers also receive lavish health-care retirement benefits.)
Few private-sector workers have anything close to $1 million socked away in their retirement accounts. According to the Federal Reserve, the average worker in his late 50s has a balance of $85,600 in his retirement account, and a net worth of $222,300 overall.
To be sure, most public employees do contribute a small portion of their salaries to their pension funds, but the state and city contribute many times more. By contrast, private employers and employees more commonly do a one-to-one match.
And private-sector workers assume all the risk of these investments, while public-sector workers enjoy generous rates of guaranteed return. As former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein quipped when he discovered his city pension offers a guaranteed 8 percent annual return, “Who but Bernie Madoff guarantees” such a return “permanently?”
Let me be clear: Many public-sector employees — especially frontline employees like teachers, cops and firefighters — have difficult, important and often dangerous jobs. They deserve to be well-compensated. And, for the most part, they are. After six years, police and firefighters can earn more than $90,000, excluding overtime.
Another irony: Salaries for public employees — math and science teachers, for example — could be raised if so much of their compensation wasn’t backloaded in pension costs.
In the popular 1950s TV show “The Millionaire,” a fictional character would hand out checks for a million dollars. Over the last few decades, we’ve developed a public-sector retirement system that basically does the same. It’s a system New York’s beleaguered taxpayers can simply no longer afford.
City pension costs have jumped from about 4 percent of city tax revenues to 20 percent over the past decade, crowding out other vital public investments. If New York is to avoid the fate of cities like Central Falls, RI, which have been driven into bankruptcy and are slashing promised retiree benefits, we must begin to fix the system now. Ideally, for new employees, by switching to the same type of “defined-contribution” retirement system now used by virtually everyone in the private sector.
There simply aren’t enough private-sector “millionaires” to support all the new public-sector millionaires being created every day.
Lawrence Mone is president of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
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