I like my weekends as much as the next guy, especially when it's autumn and the University of Michigan football team is 4-0 heading into Big Ten play with the leading Heisman Trophy candidate under center. But I think we would all be remiss to have too much fun on our days off and let our minds wander from the looming public pension crises in the states.

Thankfully, Stateline leads us into the weekend with an important story about the rising profile of public pensions in this year's gubernatorial races:

Pensions aren’t exactly a staple of election year politics in America. But after three years of heightened attention to the underfunding of public pension systems, candidates across the country are offering a variety of proposals to strengthen financing. The debate is certain to carry over to the 2011 legislative sessions that begin in January.
The sharpest divide is between advocates of the defined benefit system, which has stood for decades as the preferred way to provide retirement security for thousands of state employees, and the 401-(k) system, in which workers do most of their own retirement planning and risk investment losses in the market. Many Republican candidates for state office argue that a 401(k)- style plan would be much cheaper; their Democratic opponents generally prefer keeping the current system but trimming costs through higher employee contributions, raising the retirement age and freezing or postponing cost-of-living adjustments for those newly hired.
It's heartening to see so many gubernatorial candidates publicly embracing the shift to defined contribution pension plans for government employees. This mirrors an evolution of retirement compensation embraced by the private sector over the past few decades, where workers contribute and manage their own private retirement accounts, usually with some sort of matching contribution from the government.
While defined benefit plans are very expensive, perhaps their biggest flaw is their susceptibility to political tinkering. Near the top of any Democrat's wish list during a period of economic growth is an increase in retirement benefits for public employees as a payback to the unions for campaign contributions.
All told, according to Stateline, GOP candidates in California, Minnesota, Illinois, Oregon, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, Maine and Nevada have publicly endorsed defined contribution pension plans. But that's not to say everyone is on board:

There are a few Democratic candidates willing to stick to the traditional party position in favor of defined benefits. In Minnesota, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Dayton chastised his Republican opponent Tom Emmer for saying public employees get a guaranteed benefit while “the rest of us” are delaying retirement or “wondering if we’re ever going to be able to retire.” Dayton responded that “people who work all their careers in the public sector, they don't make a lot of money in total and they don't have a lot of retirement income, but they have secure income… To denigrate people because they want retirement security is really misguided.” 

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, a Democrat seeking his first full term, also has defended the traditional defined benefit approach even though his state has the most underfunded public pension system in the nation. Quinn’s support of defined benefits was blunted by his promotion earlier this year for a pension reform package approved by the Legislature that, among other things, raises the retirement age for new hires from 60 to 67, highest in the country. Quinn makes the distinction that the reform plan would affect only new employees. His GOP opponent, Bill Brady, favors the defined contribution approach.

To Dayton's point about the "grand bargain": He was correct a few decades ago. Employment for the government used to mean one would be paid less handsomely, but receive great benefits and a job for life. Today's reality, as explained perfectly by the Buckeye Institute's Matt Mayer, is that "the grand bargain is dead." The trajectory of government employee salary and wages has far exceeded that of the private sector in recent history, especially during the current economic downturn. The old model is no more, and the new model is simply unsustainable.
Have a great weekend!