Funding Discipline for U.S. Public Pension Plans: An Empirical Analysis of Institutional Design

53 Pages Posted: 23 Feb 2013 Last revised: 3 Mar 2015

Date Written: July 1, 2014


Using newly collected data on over 100 state-administered pension plans, this Article shows that previously overlooked differences in institutional design are associated with the striking variation in funding discipline across U.S. public pension plans. As state and local governments grapple with unfunded pension obligations, this Article presents a timely examination of public plan governance across two key dimensions: the allocation of control over funding decisions and the transparency with respect to funding liabilities. It shows empirically that greater constraints on legislative control over funding decisions — typically through the delegation of control to pension-system boards — have been associated with better funding discipline. Conversely, liability-pooling arrangements that have shrouded individual employer responsibility for underfunding have been associated with worse funding discipline. These findings should inform current reform efforts to address the multi-trillion dollar shortfall in pension funding. To date, such state and local government efforts have focused primarily on scaling back benefits for public employees but have overlooked the role of institutions in explaining why some public employers have consistently contributed to the pension funds while others have failed to set adequate contribution rates or have withheld promised funds.

Keywords: public pensions, Governmental Accounting Standards Board, cost-sharing plans, single-employer plans

JEL Classification: H55

Suggested Citation

Shnitser, Natalya, Funding Discipline for U.S. Public Pension Plans: An Empirical Analysis of Institutional Design (July 1, 2014). Iowa Law Review, Vol. 100, 2015, Boston College Law School Legal Studies Research Paper No. 350, Available at SSRN: or

Natalya Shnitser (Contact Author)

Boston College - Law School ( email )

885 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02459-1163
United States

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