Cash-strapped states look to troubled pension funds to spur economy

Published: Monday, Feb. 11 2013 8:50 a.m. MST

FILE - In this file photo taken Aug. 15, 2012 in Springfield, Ill., union members, supporters and labor leaders protest Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

Seth Perlman, AP

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With the economy still stagnating, a few powerful voices have begun pressuring already underfunded state employee pension funds to help kickstart local economies, acting as venture capital investors rather than guardians of retirement dollars.

Pension funds have long been forced to fight off political pressure, as politicians often seek to tap them for policy objectives other than managing the security of current and furture retirees.

Among those pushing for broader use of pension funds is Jesse Jackson, who used last week's Wall Street Project Economic Summit as a platform to push the idea.

“We’ve got to think outside the present fiscal-cliff-debt-ceiling box,” Jackson told the New York Times' William Alden on Wednesday. “We must have some plan for reconstruction.”

"Using pension money would simultaneously achieve another of Mr. Jackson’s goals: encouraging pensions to focus on socially responsible investments," Alden noted.

Jackson's proposal found support in an unexpected place last week. In Wisconsin, an econonomic development agency spearheaded by an appointee of Republican governor Scott Walker, unsuccessfully asked the state pension fund trustees to use $200 million from state pension funds to help start up businesses.

"The board rejected the request," according to Wisconsin's Leader-Telegram, because using pension funds to pay for economic stimulus "does not meet our fiduciary duty."

In a letter to the pension board, Reed Hall, the CEO of the Wisconsin Development Corporation, asked the board to free up the funds, the Wisconsin Reporter noted, "because his start-up program would likely find it harder to tap private investors 'due to a lack of demonstrable track records.'”

“We have to invest based on what’s best for trust fund,” Vicki Hearing, communications director at the pension fund, told the Wisconsin Reporter. “We make the best investment choices based on the risk that is allowable for the trust fund. If a fund is not about earning an investment return, then it would not meet our fiduciary duty. Earnings will not be their primary goal.”

The pension board's skepticism might have something to do with a still smoldering scandal at the development corporation, in which tens of millions of dollars in loans went missing, with no one being assigned to monitor their repayment.

"Ryan Murray, the new chief operating officer of WEDC, on Friday disclosed the lack of a loan collections department at a meeting of the quasi-public agency's board," the Milwaukie Journal Sentinal reported, "saying that from June 2011 until last week senior staff 'had no idea' what the status was of the taxpayer-funded loans."

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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