(WASHINGTON EXAMINER) The New Jersey legislature, looking to solve a budget crisis back in 1992, passed a bill that changed some of the accounting principles of the state's government employee pension system. The technical changes, little understood at the time, made the system seem in better financial shape than it actually was, allowing the legislature to reduce contributions for pensions by $1.5 billion over the next two years. Legislators seized those extra dollars and redirected them into other spending.
Jersey officials could manipulate their pension system because local governments have latitude in how they run their own retirement plans. So what they did was not unique. Around the country, state and local officials have increasingly discovered over the years that they can exploit the complex and sometimes ill-defined accounting of government pension systems, as well as loopholes in their own laws governing those pensions.
Over time, elected officials came to promise workers politically popular new benefits without setting aside the money to pay for them, declared "holidays" from contributions into pension systems and changed their own accounting systems midstream to make the systems seem better funded — all just ways of passing obligations on to future taxpayers. In the process, government pension systems became one of the chief vehicles that state and local politicians used to massage their budgets.
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