Legislative Report 4/5/2021 - The Intractable Problem of Underfunded Pensions


The announcement in January by State Treasurer Beth Pearce that the state pension funds for teachers and state employees were grossly underfunded and that action had to be taken to make the plans sustainable alarmed all Vermonters, but most especially teachers and state employees who are counting on those funds for their retirement. Her recommendations for plan changes included painful changes to pension benefits, including increasing the retirement age, increasing employee contributions, and lowering the payouts. Teachers and state employees reacted immediately to protect the benefits they had earned by contacting legislators to plead their case. This issue quickly became the dominant topic rivaling and intertwining with the budget in legislative deliberations. As such, it touches all Vermonters and deserves a closer look at the facts and figures.

In the 1990s the legislature cut back on the appropriations to the pension funds under the assumption that investment returns would continue to exceed the actuarial predictions. Over the years this contributed to about a third of the current $3 billion unfunded liability in the pension funds for teachers and state employees. Other contributing factors include an aging workforce with the number of active teachers/employees roughly equal to the number of retirees, increased longevity of retirees, and the consistently low returns on investment experienced since the “great recession” of 2009. The revised actuarial estimate this year added another $600 million to the pension system’s unfunded liabilities in this year alone.

The legislature does not manage the pensions or dictate the investment strategy, but we are taking the lead to bring stakeholders to the table to come up with a solution. Vermonters need the unions representing employees, the Governor, and the Treasurer to come to the table as well. Between 2016 and 2020 the annual contributions from the taxpayer-supported state General Fund to the pension funds increased from $184M to $303M while the teacher/employee contributions increased from $59M to $76M. The House Government Operations Committee has been considering not only the recommendations of the Treasurer but also alternative approaches to save the defined benefit model.

The legislature has already stepped up with a significant increase in funding for pensions this year. The FY22 budget that was recently passed by the House contains an appropriation of over $300 million for the pension funds. This represents an increase of roughly $100 million over the actuarial required contribution last year. While federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus funds cannot be used or applied to the pension system directly, they can be used to free up General Fund dollars to make a significant pension investment. Another $150 million in general fund dollars have been set aside for this purpose, for a total FY22 contribution approaching half a billion dollars.

Late last week Speaker Jill Krowinski announced that the House Government Operations Committee would push forward with much-needed pension governance reforms and create a task force to work over the summer to gather stakeholder input and recommend structural reform to the pension systems. The governance changes are key to solving the pension crisis. These reforms will increase the level of professional expertise of those managing the pension funds and take the politics out of decision-making at the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC), which consists of employer and employee representatives. They will streamline the decision-making process around changes to actuarial assumptions, require more frequent experience studies, and enhance transparency around investment fees. Both the new governance structure and the pension task force need to maintain representation and participation from key employee and employer stakeholders.

Defined benefit public pension plans, when properly designed and managed, are the most affordable way to provide secure income in retirement. The legislature is working to ensure the sustainability of the plans in a way that protects not only the benefits that employees and retirees earned but also the Vermonters whose taxes contribute to the pension funds and are increasingly under pressure to shore up the funds each year.

I welcome your emails (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone calls (802-233-5238).



Press Release

For Immediate Release

April 2, 2021


Media Contact

Conor Kennedy, Office of the Speaker


Montpelier, Vt. – Earlier this morning, House Speaker Jill Krowinski was joined by members of the Democratic Caucus at a press conference and provided the remarks below regarding the effort to stabilize the public pension system. A link to the press event can be found at the bottom of the page.


Good morning,


We are here today because we want to save our public pension systems and give teachers and state employee’s confidence that the money won't run out.


When we began this legislative session, I stressed the need to build a COVID recovery plan that leaves no one behind. Because of the tremendous amount of federal relief dollars the state has received, it has given us a once in a lifetime opportunity to think creatively about how to solve our biggest challenges and build us back stronger than ever before in all 14 counties. 


One of our state’s biggest problems is our unfunded public pension liability, which has risen exponentially to $5.6 billion. We cannot ignore this situation any longer; we must act. We must stabilize our pension system, so that our hard-working state employees and teachers can retire with peace of mind. Over the past few weeks, we as legislators, along with the House Government Operations Committee, have been taking a deep dive into the seriousness of the problem, how we got here over decades, and examining ideas and solutions that will move us forward on a productive path for the future.


I want to pause and acknowledge how hard and emotional this conversation has been for all concerned. We are talking about the economic security and the futures of our dedicated state employees and teachers, and that’s deeply personal for those impacted by any proposal. We have been listening closely to our constituents and hearing their concerns. Change is hard, it takes methodical, determined work, and we are only successful if we work together. As I’ve been listening to people give their feedback, while trying to get people to come to the table to add their voices and solutions, it is clear people are struggling with how to find real systemic change to resolve this crisis right now. Some stakeholders like the Vermont State Employees Union have brought a few ideas to the table, and others like the Governor have not.


The added challenges of trying to do this kind of deep policy work in a virtual environment, and not being in the State House together, are creating obstacles towards having a difficult, yet solutions-oriented conversation. 


However, in the midst of the frustration, we are seeing a path forward towards fundamental change. A majority of what I’ve been hearing, and the Government Operations Committee has been hearing is focused on the question of, “how did we get here?” Circumstances largely beyond the State’s control have led to this crisis situation, including an aging population with increasing retirements; lower than anticipated investment returns, in part, due to the Great Recession; and changes in actuarial assumptions, including a reduced rate of return. 


Moving forward, I believe we should focus on where I’m seeing the most consensus, which is changing the way we make our investment decisions with our governance structure. The legislature doesn’t make investment decisions, but we can change the board structure to make it more transparent, independent, and get more expertise at the table. This is no small lift, but I know we can do this. Second, I’d like the committee to create a Pension Task Force that brings all stakeholders, from the unions to the Governor, to the table to look at possible revenue sources and plan and benefit changes to fix this problem. Lastly, I recommend we keep the one-time $150 million in reserve while the Task Force does its work. We also have the $300 million in this year’s budget to pay for pensions and OPEB.


I want to thank Chairwoman Copeland Hanzas and the Government Operations Committee for all their hard work to save our pension system. I also want to thank all of the members for joining in and helping us find a solution. Thank you.


A recording of the event can be found here.





With the preliminary unanimous approval today of J.R.H. 2, the Vermont House of Representatives apologizes and takes full accountability for its role in the immeasurable harm that was caused as a result of the state-sanctioned eugenics movement in Vermont.

J.R.H. 2 acknowledges and apologizes for sanctioning and supporting eugenics policies and practices through the advancement of legislation which sought to eradicate people of particular cultures, races, ethnicities, socio-economic status, and abilities. This legislation led to forced family separation, sterilization, incarceration, and institutionalization for hundreds of Vermonters. The traumatic ripple effect of state-led actions has been felt through the generations and has had real and tangible effects on the lives of Vermonters today.
J.R.H. 2 does not undo the harms of the past, but it marks an essential step toward a future of accountability and reconciliation for the generations of Vermonters who were harmed by state-sanctioned violence.