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  • 270 Washington Street, SW, Suite 1-156 Atlanta, Georgia 30334 Phone: (404)656-2180

    Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts Performance Audit Division

    Greg S. Griffin, State Auditor Leslie McGuire, Director

    State Retirement Plans

    Requested information on ERS, TRS,

    and ORP

    What we found

    ERS, TRS, and ORP offer significantly different retirement benefits to their members. The plans range from offering a guaranteed defined benefit at retirement to a defined contribution 401(k)-style account to a hybrid plan that has both a defined benefit and a defined contribution component. While ERS has been reformed to address issues of financial sustainability, TRS has not. In addition, no major changes have been made to the benefits provided by ORP. Options exist to bring TRS and ORP costs and benefits in line with peers while continuing to offer a competitive benefit to their members.

    Employee Retirement System (ERS) To reduce costs, the ERS New Plan (a defined benefit plan) was closed and replaced with a hybrid retirement plan called the Georgia State Employees’ Pension and Savings Plan (GSEPS) for all state employees hired on or after January 1, 2009. The creation of GSEPS has allowed the state to mitigate its pension costs and the funding risk of the ERS pension liability.

    The state has saved approximately $71 million since the inception of GSEPS because employees are not maximizing the employer defined contribution match.1 In addition, the creation of GSEPS has allowed the state to reduce the growth of the pension liability through a lower benefit multiplier of 1% of members’ final average salary. Without the creation of GSEPS, the ERS unfunded accrued liability (UAL) would be $67 million (1.5%) higher than it is today and would have resulted in higher employer contribution rates. The current ERS UAL is approximately $4 billion, and the fiscal

    1These savings will erode if employees maximize the employer match in the future.

    Why we did this review The Senate Appropriations Committee requested this special examination of Georgia’s Employees’ Retirement System (ERS), Teachers Retirement System (TRS), and the Optional Retirement Plan (ORP). Based on the request, we reviewed: (1) the impact of the creation of Georgia State Employees’ Pension and Savings Plan (GSEPS) on the financial viability of ERS and whether GSEPS is a competitive retirement plan; (2) options to improve the financial viability of TRS while maintaining it as a defined benefit plan; and (3) how ORP compares to similar plans.

    About State Retirement Plans

    ERS and TRS represent the two largest public retirement systems in Georgia. ERS administers retirement benefits for most state of Georgia employees. TRS administers retirement benefits for employees of local school systems and other education entities, including the University System of Georgia (USG). ORP is an optional defined contribution 401(a) plan for certain TRS-eligible employees of USG.

    Employer contributions to ERS, TRS and ORP total approximately $2.8 billion annually. There are approximately 226,000 active members in TRS, 34,500 active members in GSEPS, and 14,000 active members in ORP.

    Special Examination  Report No. 18-11 January 2019

  • year 2018 employer contributions were approximately $650 million.

    Comparatively, GSEPS provides a nominal retirement benefit for the majority of its members, and its benefits are generally lower than those provided by TRS, ORP, and hybrid retirement plans in other states. Since the implementation of GSEPS, fewer than 18% of GSEPS members are projected to vest in the defined benefit, and approximately 30% fully vest in the defined contribution component. GSEPS has a longer than average vesting period for both the defined benefit and defined contribution components and provides a less portable benefit than other states’ hybrid plans. The benefit multiplier of 1% of the final average salary is also lower than average. Lastly, TRS and hybrid plans in other states provide cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) in retirement to offset inflation risk, while GSEPS does not.

    Teachers Retirement System (TRS) Although some other states have reformed their defined benefit retirement plans for teachers, TRS has not undergone any significant changes. Based on reforms in other states, DOAA, in coordination with an independent actuary, analyzed a number of options that could decrease employer contributions and risk while continuing to provide a defined benefit plan. Potential modifications include adjustments to COLAs, the interest crediting rate, and benefits for new hires. TRS currently has a UAL of approximately $25 billion, and employer contributions in fiscal year 2018 were approximately $2 billion. The state allocated an additional $224 million for TRS in the fiscal year 2018 budget and $365 million in the fiscal year 2019 budget to cover increases in the employer contribution rate.

     COLAs – Of the changes we considered, COLA adjustments have the greatest potential to reduce employer contributions while maintaining an adequate benefit. Modifications to the COLA could include changing the COLA rates and establishing a minimum age at which COLAs can begin as has been done in other states. In 21 of the last 26 years, the TRS COLA given to retirees has outpaced inflation. An independent actuarial analysis found that various options for modifying the COLA could result in employer contribution reductions ranging from $17 to $700 million annually.

     Interest rates – The interest credited on employee contributions could be more closely aligned with market interest rates. An independent actuarial analysis projected a $13 million annual reduction in costs by reducing the interest rate on employee contributions from 4.5% to 2%.

     Final average salary – Changing the final average salary calculation from the highest consecutive 24 months’ salary to the highest consecutive 60 months’ salary could result in further cost reduction. For example, we estimated that this change would have saved $50 million annually if it had been applied to the most recent five years of retirees.

     Minimum retirement age – An independent actuarial analysis projected that changing the minimum retirement age for those with less than 30 years of service from 60 to 62 for new hires would reduce employer contributions by $48 million annually.

    Other than changes to the COLA, the remaining modifications are not expected to have a significant impact on individual employees’ benefits.

    Optional Retirement System (ORP) Some USG employees are given the option to participate in ORP, a defined contribution plan, rather than TRS. ORP was created to provide a portable benefit alternative to USG employees who are not likely to retire from USG. Employer contributions in fiscal year 2017 totaled approximately $132 million. We found other public institutions’ employer contribution rates range from 3% to 13% while private institutions’ employer contribution rates range from 7.5% to 10% for their defined contribution plans. We estimate that USG could lower its employer contribution rate from 9.24% to 8% (which is above the average 7.8% among

  • peer institutions) and save over $16 million annually. A rate of 8.5% would reduce costs by nearly $10 million annually. In addition, implementing a vesting schedule for ORP would also reduce the plan’s costs.

    What we recommend

    This report is intended to answer questions posed by the Senate Appropriations Committee and to help inform policy decisions. We recommend that any changes to the state’s retirement plans balance (1) costs and sustainability, (2) the need to offer competitive benefits for recruitment and retention purposes, and (3) issues of parity across employee groups.

  • ERS, TRS, and ORP Reforms i

    Table of Contents

    Glossary of Terms and Definitions 1

    Purpose of the Special Examination 4

    Background 4

    State Constitution, Laws, and Board Rules 5

    Federal Laws 5

    General Attributes of Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Plans 5

    Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) 6

    Teachers Retirement System (TRS) 10

    Optional Retirement Plan (ORP) 12

    Other Public Sector Retirement Plans 13

    Requested Information 14

    Employee Retirement System (ERS) 14

    Teacher Retirement System (TRS) 30

    Optional Retirement Plan (ORP) 43

    Matters for Consideration 48

    The state’s three largest open retirement plans do not provide access to an equivalent

    retirement benefit 48

    Appendices 52

    Appendix A: Objectives, Scope, and Methodology 52

    Appendix B: Pre-funding of TRS COLA 55

  • ERS, TRS, and ORP Reforms 1

    Glossary of Terms and Definitions

    Term Definition

    Accrued Liability

    The accrued liability is the present value of promised pension benefits. If the plan assets

    are less than the accrued liability, the difference between the two figures would be the

    unfunded accrued liability (UAL).



    Projections about future events. These fall into two categories: demographic and

    economic. Examples include expected rate of investment returns, expected career

    lengths, li