The Florida Retirement System is in need of big changes—as of 2020 it has nearly $36 billion in unfunded liabilities, partially driven by misjudgments on mortality and retirement rates and investments returns. Florida State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a Republican, recently introduced a new bill to bring changes to the cash-strapped system, but his legislation misses the mark.
Senate Bill 84 would require all state employees who join the retirement system after July 1, 2022 to be enrolled in a 401(k)-style plan. Right now, workers have the option between a defined benefit plan and an “investment plan,” similar to a 401(k) but without giving individuals the ability to manage their investments. According to WUSF Public Media, Republicans in the Sunshine State have discussed moving away from the traditional defined benefit plan in the past but have run into union opposition.
Florida was one of the first states to offer public employees a choice in retirement benefits, and in the years since a dozen states have followed the Sunshine State’s lead. FRS has serious problems, but benefit choices are not one of them.
State leaders should, instead, focus on paying down the state’s pension debt and improving the existing retirement benefit options. There has been some action, such as decreasing the assumed rate of return to 7.2% and then again to 7% starting this year. Florida is now using an investment assumption below the national average, but even that rate has at best a 50/50 chance of working out. The only way to fix this for the state to use a realistic set of assumptions for its pension fund, increase contributions into FRS, and ensure it is responsibly funded.
The other problem with FRS is the nature of the choices that public employees have. The traditional defined benefit plan fails to provide adequate retirement benefits to public workers because the benefit formula is well below the national average. The average annual pension for FRS members is $23,060, according to a report from Florida’s Department of Management Services.
Those who choose the “investment plan,” a personal retirement account, do have good options for managing their retirement funds. The low fees and professional management of those accounts, though, don’t help much when the contributions flowing into the plan are insufficient to build adequate retirement savings.
Financial experts suggest that people who are enrolled in Social Security should be contributing 10% to 15% into their defined contribution accounts — but Florida employees are enrolled with just 6.3% in contributions.
The Florida Legislature is right to want to focus on improving FRS. But eliminating the choice of a pension plan is the wrong solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. Instead, the legislature should aim to fix the problems that they do have: an underfunded retirement system that needs more funding, less investment risk, and more reasonable assumptions. Equally as importantly, Florida should aim to provide adequate retirement benefits for workers that will offer a real path to retirement security, whether they choose the pension or investment plan.