Wisconsin teachers’, public safety officers’, and public workers’ pension benefits are entitled to certain protections under state law and affirmed by court rulings. At the same time, the state does have some legal precedent that allows them to change particular aspects of retirement benefits.
In other words, there are parts of public pension benefits that can be changed by future state laws, but only certain parts of those benefits.
Equable Institute partnered with Columbia Law School’s Center for Public Research and Leadership to create infographics that map states’ pension governance. Understanding the legal environment for pension policies can be confusing for both lawmakers and public workers, but illuminating legally permissible policy pathways to improve funding sustainability and ensure adequate retirement income security for states’ workforces is essential.
In the case of Wisconsin, state law allows the legislature to increase employee contributions. In 2011, they did just that, increasing contribution rates to 50% of the total actuarially required pension contribution. Some public workers sued the state in an effort to have that part of the law overturned, but the court sided with the state.
Changes to workers’ cost-of-living adjustments is also statutorily allowed according to Wisconsin law.
Benefit calculations have also been changed. In 2001, the Legislature raised the retirement benefits cap from 65% to 70% of final average salary. Additionally, Milwaukee County reduced the pension multiplier applied to retirees’ final average salary used to calculate benefits from 2% to 1.6% for Milwaukee Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) active members and new hires in 2011.
The legal environment is favorable for these shifts – meaning that state law and legal precedent allows for changes to these aspects of pension policy.
What’s unclear is whether Wisconsin can shift workers’ vesting periods, because this issue has not been brought to court and there is no existing law explicitly prohibiting this change.
It is important to note that current retirees’ benefits have greater legal protection than those of active employees. Apart from reduced or eliminated COLAs, current retirees’ benefits cannot be taken away or reduced.
Disclaimer: The information here doesn’t constitute legal advice or representation. Equable is not necessarily recommending any of the policies discussed in the infographic. Some may not work for certain states, others may not be desirable policy. Ultimately, any pension policy change should honor promises made to public workers and put them on a path to retirement security, while ensuring sustainable funding measures.