Fiscal Gimmickry: Pensions For Highways

For many years, the federal government of the United States has utilized accounting gimmicks to finance payments for obligations like pension plans and highway funds. But can you believe that the government is now creating a gimmick to sacrifice one of these obligations to pay for the other?

It’s true. Last month, the federal highway trust fund was running out of money. Because members of Congress could not agree on a responsible approach for raising new funds, many critical transportation infrastructure projects were about to grind to a halt.

So how did our elected leaders resolve the problem? They decided to weaken our nation’s private pension plans in order to generate additional government funds. By authorizing a practice known as “smoothing,” the government permitted private corporations to reduce their current funding payments into their own employee retirement benefit plans.

The reduction in pension expenditures during the current period is producing greater corporate taxable income. That, in turn, is increasing income tax payments to the government this period, which are being added to the highway fund.

Of course, this maneuver will result in greater pension payment obligations during future period(s). Interestingly, though, it would not have affected the tax liability of the corporations at all if the accrual method of accounting had been mandated under American laws of taxation.

Under this method, an expense is an expense whether or not it is paid. Prior to each payment, a liability (and its corresponding expense) must be recorded to reflect the unpaid obligation. The subsequent payment eliminates the liability; it does not affect the expense.

Although Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) usually requires that the accrual method be used for corporate financial statement reporting purposes, American tax laws permit the use of the cash method to calculate taxable income and deductible expenditures.

In other words, had all corporate plan sponsors been required to follow the accrual method of financial statement reporting for taxation purposes, they would not have benefited from the government’s permission to delay pension payments. But because many of them use the cash method for taxation purposes, such benefits can be claimed by taxpaying organizations.

Thus, in the end, the federal government opted to take advantage of its own accounting gimmickry to generate highway funds by explicitly encouraging corporations to weaken their pension plans. Although America’s drivers are benefiting from this practice in the present, its employees and retirees will undoubtedly pay the price in the future.