The Manitoba government's unfunded pension liability for public-sector employees is again on the rise, despite a five-year effort to tackle the problem.
Taxpayers are now on the hook for $1.9 billion in unfunded liability for pensions to civil servants, teachers and other employees compared with less than $1.8 billion a year ago.
Meanwhile, the employee portion of unfunded pension liability for many public-sector workers is also climbing. According to a recent actuarial report, the Civil Service Superannuation Fund's unfunded liability now stands at $635 million, compared with $555 million a year earlier. This represents the burden borne by public-sector employees as well as matching payments from some non-government public-sector employers. Manitoba school teachers have their own pension fund, and the teacher share of unfunded liabilities for their plan is more than $300 million.
Civil servants and teachers have seen their contribution levels rise, but the high unfunded liability figures persist.
'The trouble is that even the official numbers don't give us a good handle on the issue'
Business leaders and taxpayer advocates are worried about the implications of billions in future pension payments for which funding has not yet been secured.
And, according to the chief economist with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, nobody really knows the degree taxpayers are on the hook for public-sector pensions in Manitoba and across the country.
"The trouble is that even the official numbers don't give us a good handle on the issue," the CFIB's Ted Mallett said Thursday.
Mallett published a paper on unfunded government pension liabilities across Canada last year in an attempt to generate discussion on the issue.
Apples-to-apples comparisons between provinces are elusive, he said, because there are so many different variables at play. For instance, Ontario appears to have fully funded public-sector pensions until you realize it doesn't include its school teachers in its calculations. And Saskatchewan seems to have a bigger problem than Manitoba, but when you dig below the surface, a sizable percentage of its public-sector workers are on defined contribution plans as opposed to less predictable (from a cost point of view) defined-benefit plans.
Among the unknowns in any jurisdiction are whether assumptions about future pension-fund returns are accurate and how much money will be in a fund decades into the future.
"These are general estimates. And lots of times these plans tend to have fairly generous views -- by today's standards -- of what their future rate of return will be," Mallett said.
For all we know, he said, liability for taxpayers could be higher than government projections.
Finance Minister Stan Struthers said the nearly $2 billion in unfunded pension liability the government is responsible for "would have been a lot worse" if the NDP hadn't tackled the problem head-on some years ago, rather than let it fester as previous governments had done for decades.
In 2008, the government's unfunded pension liability stood at a high-water mark of $4.45 billion.
"We did the very fiscally responsible, prudent thing and took this on and are determined to see it through and meet our responsibilities in a balanced way," Struthers said.
However, the government reduced its unfunded liability mainly by borrowing money -- about $2.5 billion -- at low interest rates, which it is now investing to help it meet its obligations. In effect, what it has done is transfer its pension liabilities into taxpayer debt.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman with the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union said workers are viewing the unfunded pension liability numbers with concern.
"At this point, it's kind of a wait and see what happens to the market in the next few years," said the union's Brenda Hasiuk.
Large market gains or a significant rise in interest rates could make a lot of the problem disappear, but there are no guarantees. If huge unfunded pension liabilities persist, employees -- and government as the employer -- could see their contribution rates continue to rise.
"What we don't want to see is a decrease to benefits," Hasiuk said. "That's a promise that's made to people while they're working."