LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
These are tough times for state governments. Many of them are contending with huge budget deficits. And a report issued today says there's a daunting challenge just ahead. Many states have promised big pension and retirement benefits to their employees without putting aside money to pay for them. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI: The report was put out by the Pew Center on the States, and it portrays a state pension system that's headed for crisis, if it's not already there. Susan Urahn is the center's managing director.
Ms. SUSAN URAHN (Managing Director, Pew Center): The 50 states have racked up more than $3.3 trillion in long-term liabilities for pensions, health care and other retirement benefits that they promised to their current employees and retirees. But they have not got any money to set aside to pay a trillion dollars, which is almost a third of this bill.
ZARROLI: Urahn says states often try to compensate for relatively low salaries by offering their employees generous retirement benefits. And they can be very generous. Connecticut has a series of early retirement programs that allow employees with 10 years of service to retire at age 52. Politicians can get away this because the bill won't come due till after they've left office. Orin Kramer heads the New Jersey Investment Council.
Mr. ORIN KRAMER (New Jersey Investment Council): It's an easy omission, because if you underfund, you're passing costs on to future generations of taxpayers, but that isn't going to be obvious for a long time.
ZARROLI: The report says almost all state pension plans are underfunded. Two states - Illinois and Kansas - have set aside less than 60 percent of the money they'll need to pay benefits. Six others are underfunded by a third or more.
The Pew Center's Susan Urahn says the problem has been exacerbated by the recession, which has cut into the value of state investment funds. But Urahn says states have underfunded their plans even in good times.
Ms. URAHN: This matters tremendously because how well states manage their retirement costs affects how much money they have to spend on other priorities. And, in fact, these costs are already adding significant pressure to already stressed state budgets.
ZARROLI: Urahn says states that underfund their pension plans have to make up for it later. She compares what happened to two neighboring states: New York and New Jersey.
Until 2002, both kept their pension plans adequately funded. But then New Jersey stopped making regular payments - much like someone who keeps using a credit card while paying only the minimum each month, New Jersey has now seen its liabilities soar.
Ms. URAHN: Fast forward up to 2008. Now New Jersey's annual bill is a billion dollars more than New York's, even though its total pension liability is $15 billion less. So that's the impact of simply kicking the can down the road.
ZARROLI: And she says many states may be in worse shape than they appear because they use an accounting technique called smoothing. They average out the value of their investments over five years or so, which tends to obscure the depth of their losses in times when the financial markets have taken a hit, like they have in recent years.
But the report also says it's not too late for states to get their houses in order. Simple changes made now, like raising the retirement age by just a year, can make a big difference over time. But that will require some tough choices by state officials, and that's something many of them have shied away from.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
WERTHEIMER: To see whether your state has high or low funding levels for its pension plans, go to npr.org.