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Puerto Rico Teeters On Fiscal Edge Over Pensions

By DANICA COTO

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) â¿¿ Office clerk Lillian Marti hopes to retire one day with a decent pension. Now, like many other employees of Puerto Rico's government, she's beginning to fear she might not get that chance.

"Of course, I'm worried," said the 61-year-old, who has worked for the government for 20 years.

Some experts are calling for cutting benefits to help Puerto Rico confront what economists and financial analysts say is a ticking fiscal time bomb: A public pension system with a $37.3 billion unfunded liability that must be addressed soon, at a time when the U.S. island territory's government has little money to spare.

The unfunded liability, which is spread across three public pension systems, is almost four times the annual government budget for the island of nearly 4 million people. Only a few much larger U.S. states, such as California and Illinois, face bigger unfunded liabilities.

Puerto Rico's problem stems from decades of neglect as politicians facing budget deficits were unwilling to set aside money for the growing ranks of retired police, firefighters, teachers and office workers. Now many analysts and even some government officials concede it is the most critical issue facing the administration of newly elected Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla.

"This is the most important financial issue right now," said Gustavo Velez, a prominent Puerto Rican economist. "They have to find a solution. They have to create a plan in the next three months."

Velez and others suggest that Puerto Rico should immediately reduce benefits, raise the retirement age and demand increased contributions from current employees, ideas that don't sit well with people like Marti.

"Imagine, I'm going to be left without a big chunk of money that I contributed," she said.

Garcia, who defeated the incumbent with support of the public employee unions, has formed a committee to come up with suggestions. He has not yet said how he will address the situation. Simply taking the money from the island's general fund is out of the question: Puerto Rico has a projected deficit this year of $1.2 billion.

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