Pension Transparency: Tennessee

2015 Pensions Policy

Goal

The state should disclose all financial and other data necessary for policymakers, school districts and the general public to have a clear and accurate depiction of the current standing and future health of the system. State teacher retirement systems als

Meets a small part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2015). Pension Transparency: Tennessee results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/TN-Pension-Transparency-74

Analysis of Tennessee's policies

Teachers, policymakers and taxpayers deserve accurate and reliable information about the costs and benefits of the public pension systems they support.

Just as teachers can easily obtain their salary schedules, they should have access to information about pensions so that they can make informed decisions about their career and retirement futures. It is unclear what information, if any, Tennessee provides to teachers about their retirement benefits. No evidence could be found on the retirement system's website that Tennessee provides teachers with information on how their benefits accrue for each year of service, the amount contributed each year by teachers and employers on behalf of teachers, or the projected value of a teacher's contributions based on different assumptions about the rate of return expected (e.g. 4%, 6%, and 8%), nor that the state provides teachers with transparent information about the opportunity cost of leaving contributions in the system by reporting how much might be earned if teachers were to put contributions into a personal retirement savings account.

Teachers in Tennessee enroll in a hybrid plan, which means that employee and employer contributions should be sufficient to pre-fund the employee's pension. There is no evidence, however, that Tennessee provides teachers with clear information about how their contributions are being used, including the extent to which current employer contributions are being used to subsidize the retirement benefits of teachers in different cohorts and with different career lengths. including the extent to which current employer contributions are being used to subsidize the retirement benefits of teachers in different cohorts and with different career lengths.

If Tennessee does share any of this information with teachers, the fact that it does so is hidden from public view.

Public disclosures on teacher pensions in Tennessee also lack transparency. Tennessee does not report projections for future contributions required to fully amortize the system's total unfunded liabilities, information that would allow policymakers and employers to better plan their budgets in the short and longer terms. These projections should be reported under a range of assumptions about the rate of return on investments, not just under the system's own assumption, which would allow stakeholders in Tennessee to appropriately assign risk to the system's obligations and provide clarity about potential unfunded liabilities facing taxpayers.

The Government Accountability Standards Board (GASB) requires public retirement systems to disclose who makes employer contributions, and the proportion of total contributions for which each contributor is responsible. All states' pension systems collect this information, and Tennessee makes these data readily available.

Tennessee, like most states, reports the portion of total pension contributions that is normal cost and the proportion that is amortization cost. However, the state does not report information about whether it has taken on debt in order to pay for current or future retiree benefits (e.g. through pension obligation bonds or other instruments for raising capital). Even if the state has not taken on debt, it should disclose this information to the public as it is an important indicator of the state's overall health and stability.

Citation

Recommendations for Tennessee

Provide teachers with the information necessary to understand their retirement benefits.
Tennessee should provide much more detailed information to teachers about how their benefits accrue at different points during their careers, as well as information about the opportunity costs related to any contributions made into the system. The plan should also disclose to teachers how their contributions are being used (i.e. whether they all are directed at prefunding their own retirement, or whether a portion of their contributions are used to help pay for retirement benefits of other members). Moreover, Tennessee could provide detailed information about how employer contributions are used - e.g. to what extent the employer contributions for an individual teacher are used to subsidize teachers in different cohorts and teachers with different tenure. If Tennessee does in fact share any of this information with teachers, it should share with policymakers and the public a template for the data that are provided.

Report to policymakers and the public data that give a complete representation of the system's financial health.
Tennessee should also report projections for future contributions necessary to pay off its unfunded liabilities under a range of assumptions about its discount rate. Finally, the state should disclose in its reports whether or not the system has taken debt service to pay for retirement benefits.

State response to our analysis

Tennessee was helpful in providing information that enhanced this analysis. Tennessee also indicated that projections about benefits are provided to teachers in the DB plan. DB balances are available quarterly or immediately on the system website. The state added that the "vendor has tools for projections."

Last word

Accrual should be reported to teachers for each year, not just their retirement eligibility goals.