Is the pension tax in trouble?
At a meeting of Jacksonville City Council last week, pastors from the Northside compared the water from the area off Soutel Drive on U.S. 1 to the water in Flint, Michigan. They talked about buying into the okey-doke by everyone from Hans Tanzler to Alvin Brown. They claimed the mayor told them something like, “If you don’t support this referendum, you can expect jack from us.”
Those pastors were fired up and ready to go. They compared the referendum to the PATRIOT Act, saying they were two measures being rubberstamped by a pliant legislative branch.
It was a 19-0 vote in favor of the tax. But with asterisks denoting conditional support among some of the 19.
Example: Reggie Brown fronted like there was some grand conspiracy to hold the referendum in August before the final ratification of the budget and adoption of the Capital Improvement Plan.
Another example: Bill Gulliford told The Beaches Leader last week that the pension tax was “the best of the bad solutions,” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.
Other pols, like Tommy Hazouri, have reached out to the mayor’s office to coordinate talking points, in part because they’re not sure what the current sales pitch is.
The Florida Times-Union also has questions, which is big, because its reporters and editorial page translate the esoterica of City Hall into coffee-break talk. To sell this, the T-U will have to be on board. It’s not a monolith yet.
Much can go wrong with the sales pitch over the next three months. But much already has gone wrong in the last decade and a half, which is why Jacksonville is choking on legacy costs. The pension tax is the Heimlich. It might not save us. But it’s all we’ve got.
The pension tax, to be clear, represents 1/200 of people’s spending money at most, and is just the extended remix of the Better Jacksonville Plan tax. And the plan, to amortize the unfunded liability of the closed plans and then pay it off with tax intake, is predicated on an assumption that no one holding an elected office can articulate.
The assumption is that as people on the pension plans die out, revenue increases, and that’s how the thing gets paid off around 2056. The money works out, because the revenue increases and the obligation decreases over time. And by obligation, I mean people drawing pensions, aka The Liability.
There are some folks in Jacksonville who assume people on pensions live forever. To the benefit of budgets, they don’t. There are actuarial tables that project when fire, police, and correctional workers die, based on a number of variables. Don’t think for a second these haven’t been considered on the policy side.
The reality of all of this is too dark to be sold in the kind of mailers and happy ads the voters respond to every election cycle. Politicians aren’t going to talk actuarial tables at the fish fry.
Another point of reality is that the pension tax and amortization is another bucket to bail out the sinking ship of this city’s municipal finances. Look around you; many neighborhoods look like war zones. Look at the 1950s infrastructure. Look at the sad roads, pavement cracked like a meth head’s teeth.
None of that can be fixed, even in the long run, if the pension balloon isn’t deflated with a slow leak. A slow abatement, rather than another 11 years of austerity, is exactly what the amortization will allow. It sucks to pay off the unfunded liability on a 44-year mortgage, but here we are. And we got here our way: with half-assed planning and no oversight.
Our public pension plans had no negotiated change in terms, even through two straight recessions and a war pushed America from the 20th century into the Third World. Because everyone lacked political courage.
We also kept cutting taxes. And, perhaps coincidentally, we have a $2.7 billion pension liability choking us like a tumor in the windpipe. Absent a millage hike, which anyone currently on Council can push for if they desire, the one way to immediately defray the burden is to amortize the unfunded pension liability and pay it off through a regressive tax from 2030-ish until most people reading this are dead.
A few years ago, on many an RV or Cadillac, you’d see a vanity license plate that read, “We’re Spending Our Children’s Inheritance.” In public policy, that was proved true.
The pension tax extension and borrowing money that the unborn will pay off is our final monument to the 20th century. There will never be benefits like that again.
The real truth is that all of our labor is worth less. Our money is worth less. We are worth less.
Our country, aside from multinational corporations, has lost an economic war, via NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Quantitative Easing, Too Big to Fail, and other corrective measures that the pundit class and the plutocrats rubberstamped at the expense of the blue-collar middle class. And now here we are, paying in the present and the future, because the local and national bets of the past 25 years didn’t pay off.