SALEM — Oregon’s public-pension board will decide Friday on the economic factors that will shape what state and local governments will pay into the system in the 2017-19 budget cycle.
Among those factors are the all-important assumed rate of return on the almost $71 billion invested in the Public Employees Retirement System fund.
A presentation is scheduled by Milliman, the actuarial firm based in Seattle that will crunch the numbers and come up with more precise “advisory rates” for payroll costs of individual state and local government employers by Sept. 25. Preliminary rates for their pension contributions will be released next summer, and final ones adopted by the PERS board in September 2016.
The actual rates that the 925 member governments will pay in 2017-19 will be based on several factors, including assumptions about inflation and wage growth. But the one that stands out is the assumed rate of return, which for 24 years was set at 8 percent, typical of what state-run pension funds had until recent years.
The current rate is 7.75 percent, which the board set two years ago and has been in effect since Jan. 1, 2014. California lowered its rate from 7.75 percent to 7.5 percent in 2012.
The rate is used when the system credits annual earnings for the regular accounts of public employees hired before 1996. It’s also used to calculate pension payments for public employees hired before August 2003, when the system was overhauled and pension benefits were reduced for new workers.
A lower rate could reflect more realistic projections of PERS earnings from investments, which account for 73 cents of every dollar it pays out to retirees.
But it also could result in higher pension contributions by government employers, which already are facing increases, and lower benefit payments for current employees when they retire.
Two employees filed comments urging the board not to change the current rate.
“Having to work six extra months just to get to where you would have been before is just not right,” said Tammy Noeske of Salem.
“Oregonians who work in government are weary of all the recent changes that keep moving the goal line for retirement,” said Doug Crumme of Corvallis.
Governments are faced with higher contribution rates as a result of an April 30 decision by the Oregon Supreme Court, which ruled that lawmakers cannot retroactively reduce cost-of-living increases to about 130,000 retirees in an effort to pare the system’s unfunded liabilities.
Milliman projects the average rate increase for school districts at 5.3 percentage points of total payroll for workers hired before August 2003; for all other governments, 3.8 percentage points, and for coverage of the post-August 2003 workers, one-10th of a percentage point.
At a board meeting May 29, Milliman laid out three potential rates of return, all of them less than the current 7.75 percent.
Milliman itself projected an annual rate of 7.05 percent over 20 years, which it says is a more typical horizon for investment decisions.
Callan, the San Francisco firm that works with the Oregon Investment Council, has developed a scenario of 7.45 percent annually over 10 years.
A third scenario could put the average rate at 7.32 percent, also over 10 years.
While the PERS board sets the rate, the actual income hinges on the range of investments overseen by the Oregon Investment Council and the Investment Division of the Oregon State Treasury.
For various reasons, the council has begun shifting some of its investments from private equities into other types that can be converted more easily into cash that can flow into the pension system. Private-equity investments have the greatest average yield for the state, but also cost the state more in payments to outside managers.