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Another Perspective on Transparency

Bill Bergman, MBA

Editor's Note: A contrarian view of the fiscal health of New York State is provided here by Bill Bergman, the director of research at Truth in Accounting, a nonprofit group committed to educating citizens about their government's financial information. Truth in Accounting's board of directors and advisors include a former U.S. comptroller general, a former member of the Public Oversight Board, a former director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and former Big Four partners.

We applaud the Office of the State Comptroller for making a strong commitment to transparency and would encourage more states to the same. We also appreciate that GASB has finally adopted standards that will raise the bar for transparency and increase the visibility of key metrics for a state's finances.

GASB Statements 67 and 68, once implemented, will markedly transform balance sheets for many state and local governments, including those of New York. But these standards—both dealing with accounting and financial reporting for pension plans—still haven't been fully implemented, even in jurisdictions like New York, which could have chosen early adoption. After including obligations that we believe should be on the balance sheet—obligations that have accumulated over decades—New York State is one of the most heavily indebted states in the Union.

We have related concerns about budget accounting, which has historically allowed real expenses to run outside “balanced budget” calculations. By our calculation, New York is now facing large unfunded retirement obligations. A negative $131 billion shortfall has been driven by compensation and other costs incurred in prior years but not paid in those years (this figure is derived from New York's March 31, 2014, audited Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and retirement plans' actuarial reports). Instead, these costs have been shifted to future taxpayers.

Retiree healthcare benefits account for a surprisingly high share of that total. About three-fourths of New York's retirement debt is not reported on the balance sheet. Greater transparency is needed from governments and standards setters.

For a fuller discussion, see our information sheet “The Financial State of New York” http://www.truthinaccounting.org/library/doclib/NY-2-Pager.pdf. We are glad that the topic is garnering attention in publications like The CPA Journal and encourage all CPAs to get informed and involved.

Bill Bergman, MBA. Director of Research, Truth in Accounting, Adjunct Instructor, Loyola University, Chicago, Ill.

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