Could Arkansas’ efforts to strengthen a program serving 43,000 retirees offer an example for Congress to fix programs serving 60 million?

During this past legislative session, Arkansas lawmakers took steps – baby steps for sure, but steps – that might shore up the state’s Teacher Retirement System. Actuaries had determined it would take the system 29 years to catch up with the payments it will make to current and future retirees, and that’s too much. In the past, 30 years was considered acceptable, but the Government Accounting Standards Board has lowered that number to 18. Anything longer risks hurting the state’s bond rating and increasing the borrowing costs for schools and roads.

Because big fixes are hard, the system’s managers requested the flexibility to implement numerous little ones. Laws passed this session let the system’s board of trustees increase the rates paid by school districts and by current teachers if the projected payoff exceeds 18 years. Various retirement benefits could be reduced, and the system will be funded by school districts employing contracted employees working for private providers.

In other words, the Teacher Retirement System is not meeting professional standards meant to assure long-term survivability. So in response, the Legislature gave a governing entity the flexibility to make changes, rather than doing it in the politically charged halls of the State Capitol, where laws can be hard to pass and harder to change.

It remains to be seen if the changes will work. It could be that the state’s retirement systems need bigger fixes. The point is, fixes are being attempted for a popular retirement system serving 43,000 current beneficiaries, and those fixes involve less debt, not more. Solving the problem will require some people to pay more or get less, and these people vote.

Let’s compare that to the federal government’s programs that serve 60 million people. Social Security and Medicare both face long-term funding issues far more serious than the state’s Teacher Retirement System. According to the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the trust fund for Medicare Part A, which covers hospital payments, runs out of money in 2025, and then it will have to rely solely on the taxes being paid at the time. At that point, doctors and hospitals under the law will face a 13 percent pay cut, leading some to simply stop seeing Medicare patients. Social Security’s trust fund runs out of money in 2034, at which point all recipients under current law will receive an automatic 21 percent cut. The trust fund has been borrowed from to pay for the government’s other programs, but the government has promised to pay it back, so we’ll just have to take its word for it.

The numbers don’t work and will grow worse as the baby boomers age and retire. By 2027, the costs of mandatory spending programs, of which Social Security and Medicare are the major parts, plus interest on the national debt will equal 99 percent of all federal revenues. That means, 10 years from now, 1 percent will be left for everything else the government does, including the military, which means even more borrowing. In the following decades, the unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare reach incomprehensibly high numbers in the trillions of dollars.

Unlike the Teacher Retirement System, there is no mechanism for boards of trustees to tweak the systems, because the financials are locked into law. In fact, because the programs are considered to be “mandatory,” Congress doesn’t even take a hard look at them. Moreover, the spending is not governed by anything like that 18-year provision. The government just pays more year after year until the programs hit the wall in 2025 and 2034, and then benefits suddenly will be cut.

Whether it’s the Teacher Retirement System, Social Security or Medicare, when revenues doesn’t meet expenses, policymakers have three choices: more revenues, less expenses, or some combination of both. Congress has chosen the easier fourth option: Do nothing because the consequences happen long after the next election.

Could Congress, which long ago decreed the changes would happen suddenly in the future, instead somehow make them happen gradually and less painfully – using some of the same principles adopted by the Legislature? The pain could be lessened by addressing the problem now, even though it would involve some people paying more or getting less, and those people vote.

Hopefully, Congress will do something. Most of us aren’t teachers, but most of us hope to retire, eventually.

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. Email him at Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.