State and Local Retirement Plans: Innovation and Renovation

July 2001
EBRI Issue Brief #235 | Special Report SR-38
Paperback, 32 pp.
PDF, 145 kb
Employee Benefit Research Institute, 2001

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Executive Summary

  • This Issue Brief examines the universe of state and local retirement plans. It describes how these plans have developed and continue to evolve in a number of areas, including plan features, regulatory framework, governance, and asset management. While these retirement programs differ in many respects from private-sector plans, the disparity in some areas has narrowed. This report also includes a discussion of trends and the underlying forces for change.
  • Public-sector retirement programs provide an important source of pension coverage in the United States, and are a significant part of the total retirement market: Combined public-sector retirement assets (state, local, and federal governments) comprised 29 percent of $11.2 trillion U.S. retirement market in 1998.
  • State and local plans are dominant in the public-sector retirement market, holding $2.7 trillion in assets, compared with $696 billion held by federal plans (both military and civilian). More than 16 million individuals are employed by state and local jurisdictions in the United States.
  • State and local retirement plans share certain common features because of the environment in which they operate. Legal statutes, governance, and tradition all play a role in defining what is sometimes referred to as a "public-sector culture." Despite common features, there is considerable diversity among public-sector retirement plans.
  • To attract and retain a skilled work force, public-sector employers have increased their use of defined contribution (DC) plans to supplement defined benefit (DB) plans (or, to a lesser extent, replace or serve as an alternative to them) and improve cost-of-living adjustments. At the same time, a combined federal-state regulatory framework has encouraged certain plan design features, unavailable in the private sector, which include multiple tiers for successive generations of employees in a single plan and different strategies to increase portability.
  • State and local retirement plans reflect an increasing role by the federal government in pension system design and operation, which has led to greater complexity in such areas as Social Security participation and deferred compensation arrangements. Complexity can be expected to increase with the recent passage of P.L. 107-16, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001.
  • The latest full-year data included in this report are for 1999 and in some cases 2000. After this report went to press, the Federal Reserve issued significantly revised quarterly data for state, local, and federal retirement plan assets, which were not incorporated in this Issue Brief.