Panelists at a forum Friday grappled with the challenge of engaging the public on critical but dry fiscal problems facing the state like unfunded pension liabilities.
The discussion was part of a “Make Government Work” forum at the Hartford Club sponsored by No Labels, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, and Connecticut Voices for Children.
The conversation spanned a wide range of topics but a member of the audience asked panelists for ideas on getting the general public, particularly young people, engaged on dense fiscal issues like pension liabilities.
Connecticut holds the distinction of having one of the highest unfunded pension liabilities in the nation. That means the pool of money Connecticut has set aside to pay for the retirement benefits of state workers has been underfunded to a higher degree here than in most other states.
Those underfunded pension obligations represent a big problem for Connecticut. Over the years, state government has put off payments to the funds. But it will eventually be on the hook for the payments with interest tacked on.
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo said the state paid more than $1.25 billion last year into the fund and about $1 billion of that payment was made to pay off lingering costs deferred from past years.
Lembo said state’s pension liability problem is a result of “decades of irresponsible decisions that are on the heads of governors, legislatures, and in some cases my friends in labor.”
But how can officials get the public engaged in fixing the problem? David M. Walker, former U.S. Comptroller General who moderated the discussion, said it was important to condense complicated issues into compelling messages.
“So that in 10 minutes, people know you’re on a burning platform. You’ve got make major changes, but then you’ve got to give them hope and show them a way forward,” he said. “It can be done, but it has to be done primarily by the chief executive officer.”
Last year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy implemented a plan to get the state funding 80 percent of its obligations by 2025 and 100 percent in 2032. In order to get there, he increased required contributions to the fund by around $125 million.
While some economists have called the plan too modest, Lembo said last year was the first time since 1996 that the payment the state made on the fund matched what was recommended. He said it was a good start.
Lembo said it is up to the electorate to decide whether to be engaged on issues and to decide whether to support solutions when they are proposed.
“If we want to be treated as children, if we want to have happy thoughts and sound bytes thrown our way, then you’re going to get more of what you’ve got right now. But when someone stands up and tells you the truth, after you get over the initial hit, you’ve got to be willing to listen to the plan to move forward and decide if you want to get behind that plan,” he said.
Lembo said it can be politically advantageous for politicians to sugar-coat issues for the public.
“It’s dicey. The incentives to lie to you are high,” he said.
Former Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele said it will take courage on the part of elected officials to address the unfunded pension problem. He said it will not only take strategies to pay down the unfunded liability, but also negotiating different retirement plans for new state employees and determining whether the state is properly investing its money.
“Let me tell you, being someone who’s run for public office on the state level, those could be career-ending decisions because you’re talking about union state employees and if not done properly or explained properly that’s a big course,” he said.
Fedele said it is difficult to engage young people who have not been directly impacted by state fiscal policies and do not necessarily feel they have a “horse in the race.” He said social media and forums like Friday’s are important tools to reach out to the public.
“You’re connected. The question becomes when you get that message, what do you do with it?” he said.