Hawaii’s pension and retiree health care funds are like a giant black hole in the state’s future. It’s growing bigger, getting closer and threatening to swallow important public services if we don’t figure out how to get rid of it.

Together, the Hawaii Employees’ Retirement System and the Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund are short an estimated $27 billion — and rising. That means that every man, woman and child in Hawaii is on the hook for nearly $20,000 to cover the so-called unfunded liabilities.

Pension debt has bankrupted other cities and is the biggest financial problem facing Hawaii today. State and local governments could very well be forced to cut services or raise taxes to plug the growing hole.

But most Hawaii residents have little idea what sort of financial pickle our state is really in. Pension fund woes are hardly the sexiest problems grabbing headlines to begin with. But perhaps more troubling is that the state doesn’t make it easy for the public to track the growing deficit or follow along as investment and funding decisions are being made.

Pension Beach Nathan Eagle

Civil Beat reporter Nathan Eagle draws a line in the sand at Makapuu Beach.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Other states enjoy much more comprehensive public records and open meetings laws. In California, for example, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS, the largest public pension fund in America with assets of $283.5 billion and unfunded actuarial liabilities of $57 billion, posts most documents online.

With the click of a mouse you can find scores of documents dealing with virtually every aspect of CalPERS operations. Agendas for the CalPERS trustee meetings are accompanied by all documents and reports distributed to trustees for consideration – these agendas and attachments frequently comprise 500 pages or more of information.

The financial disclosures of all trustees and administrative officials also are publicly available. California court decisions have made the names of retirees and the amounts of their individual pension public information. California law also sets parameters for the cost of producing documents so public agencies cannot obstruct access by charging unrealistic fees.

Civil Beat has spent the past six months researching how the pension and retiree health care funds operate to explain the state’s financial situation in a way that ordinary taxpayers can understand.

We teamed state government reporter Nathan Eagle with Bob Porterfield, a veteran journalist based in California.

Nathan and Bob began the project by collecting pension fund reports, including minutes of the meetings of the ERS’ Board of Trustees. In Hawaii those are not as readily available online. For example, the ERS has only posted its meeting agendas and minutes since 2011, but has made available its annual financial reports for fiscal years 2003 through 2011. The ERS actuarial reports are available for the past five years.

Although the ERS posts its extensive Investment Policy Guidelines Procedures Manual, none of the more than 28 periodic reports with detailed information on investments are available online. Nor are the contracts with investment managers and consultants. The ERS does, however, make available summaries of investments and quarterly performance reports and summaries of their investment holdings.

To analyze the thousands of pages of documents obtained online and through requests to the ERS, we extracted data and constructed spreadsheets to obtain a picture of the historic financial trends at the ERS. Only then did the pension fund’s looming financial problems come into focus.

Our efforts were hampered by the fact that the ERS has been tardy producing its annual financial reports. Only in December 2013 did the pension fund release its 2011 report. The 2012 report is expected to come out in June and the 2013 report is set to be drafted this summer.

The community of financial institutions, hedge funds and other professionals dealing with public retirement funds is very tight-knit and secretive.

Unlike California and other states, the names of retirees receiving public pensions are not public under Hawaii law. Trustees of the pension and retiree health care funds are required to file annual financial disclosures, but they are made available only to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission and not shared with the public.

Although we talked to several state lawmakers, pension trustees, union leaders, actuaries and others, many in the financial community were not willing to speak on the record. As one consultant described it, the community of financial institutions, hedge funds and other professionals dealing with public retirement funds is very tight-knit and secretive; few want to speak on the record and many hide behind the claim of client confidentiality even though it’s public money at stake.

One exception was ERS Executive Director Wes Machida, who has established a reputation in the community as being very accessible, reasonable and responsive.

Machida and his staff tracked down hundreds of pages of information and researched answers to what probably seemed obscure questions at the time, though critical to our overall knowledge of how the system works. They also worked with us to narrow our records requests so as to reduce the cost.

That’s not the case for officials grappling with the state’s bigger black hole over at the EUTF.

Lawmakers and pension fund officials tell us the EUTF is in far worse shape than the ERS, where significant reforms have been made in recent years. Yet EUTF officials are reluctant to explain what’s going on with the fund.

We’ve been trying to reach Sandi Yahiro, the head of the health fund, since January.

State Sen. Clayton Hee, a veteran of legislative policy skirmishes, may have hit on the reason we’ve had such difficulty getting information out of the EUTF. But it’s also why lawmakers like Hee should mandate more transparency when it comes to these critical public boards and agencies.

“I’ve known trustees on the EUTF and the ERS. If you’re on the ERS, that’s not a bad job to have,” Hee says. “You don’t look at quitting, you look at trying to make this system better.

“But when you’re on the EUTF, I’ve had guys say, ‘When my term’s up, I’m outta here. This is a problem that can’t be fixed and I’m not gonna be dragged down by it.’ Two different scenarios. Night and day.”

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