New Jersey’s pension funding level is the worst of the 50 U.S. states, according to new data from Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Garden State’s funding level sank to 37% in the 2015 fiscal year from 42% in 2014, according to Pew’s annual accounting of nationwide pension debts report released Thursday. New Jersey was among four states under 50% along with Kentucky (38%), Illinois (40%) and Connecticut (49%).
Unfunded liabilities increased $157 billion for pension plans in the 50 U.S. states from 2014 to 2015 to $1.1 trillion, according to the Pew report. New Jersey’s unfunded pension liability jumped in that span from $113.1 billion to $135.7 billion.
The Pew analysis noted that a large factor in the increased liabilities was investment returns that fell short of expectations with median overall returns of 3.6%. State pension plans on average had assumed returns of 7.6% in 2015. New Jersey’s pension system returned just 4.2% in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Treasury.
“A worsening fiscal picture in fiscal 2015 was driven largely by weaker investment returns than in the previous year,” Pew researchers wrote. “Given the continued volatility in investment returns, state and local policymakers cannot count solely on returns to close the pension funding gap over the long term.”
South Dakota was the only state to have a fully funded pension plan in 2015, according to Pew data. New York and Wisconsin were close to fully funded at 98% each.
A rising pension burden drove one-notch credit downgrades for New Jersey general obligation bonds by S&P Global Ratings in November and Moody’s Investors Service on March 27. The state’s debt is rated A3 by Moody’s, A-minus by S&P, and A by both Fitch Ratings and Kroll Bond Rating Agency. Pension liabilities have also led to a bleak credit picture for Illinois, which is the only state rated lower than New Jersey.
Christie’s proposed 2018 fiscal year budget includes what he calls a record $2.5 billion pension system contribution, but is only half of what is actuarially recommended. New Jersey Treasurer Ford Scudder lowered the state’s assumed rate of return on pension assets in February to 7.65% from 7.9%.