COLUMBIA -- The impact of lower stock market investments during the past decade and retirees living longer helped the state's pension funding gap swell to more than $17 billion, experts told South Carolina legislators Wednesday.

Filling that gap likely involves a combination of lower cost-of-living pension increases, higher contributions from workers or taxpayers and changes in some rules for earning benefits.

The state's pension fund saw a meltdown of investment values at the start of the last decade tied to the technology sector and a decade-capping meltdown of the financial services industry.

"I can say without any equivocation that no one in my business assumed we'd have a decade where the equity market would produce no rate of return," pension investment consultant Allan Emkin told senators.

That is coming home to South Carolina's retirees and workers who rely on pension benefits and hope to depend on them in the future.

Legislators are trying to come up with the cash to keep those promises.

A projection this year for the South Carolina Retirement System set the gap between investments on hand and those long-term promises at $13.4 billion.

If everyone entitled to a pension retired immediately, that projection said it would take 37.6 years to cover the tab.

The new assessment stretches that to as long as 60 years, double the industry standard.

The report said pension fund investment expectations should be lowered to an average of 7.5 percent instead of the current 8 percent. That move increased the long-term shortfall by $1.2 billion.

The consultants also said people are living longer, which is good news for those people, Emkin said. "The bad is the people who have to pay the benefits that those people are going to get out of the system."

Joseph Newton, a senior consultant with Gabriel Roeder Smith, told legislators that the pension plan should now presume that people will continue to live longer and build that into projections. That change alone accounted for $1.1 billion of the pension-gap increase.

The report said the state can cut $3.7 billion from the long-term gap because inflation and investment returns would limit cost-of-living increases to 1 percent.

Roger Smith, executive director of the South Carolina Education Association, said that trimming the annual inflation-related increases would hurt teachers and other retirees.

Putting the system back in is up to legislators. A House panel will get a similar briefing today, and lawmakers expect to have proposals drafted before the session resumes in January.

Sen. Greg Ryberg, an Aiken Republican co-chairing the Senate committee, said the experts showed what was wrong. "Now the question is: Do we have the political will to correct the problem? I think we do," Ryberg said.