Retirees push lawmakers to stay vigilant for lame-duck attack on pension rights

Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan got an earful from retirees after a forum on threats to retirement security in St. Paul Dec. 5.

Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan got an earful from retirees after a forum on threats to retirement security in St. Paul Dec. 3.

 

Two years ago, Congress opened the door for troubled pension funds to cut retirees’ benefits, after Rep. John Kline slipped the provision into a must-pass bill keeping the federal government open.

Now, with Congress poised to pass a similar stopgap bill, Kline is back with another “pension reform” bill, and it’s just as bad as the 2014 measure – maybe even worse. But this time around, the element of surprise won’t be on Kline’s side.

A forum Saturday morning on Kline’s proposal drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 retirees to the Macalester College chapel in St. Paul. It was the first in a series of public events to keep pension reform off the lame-duck agenda.

Retirees packed the chapel at Macalester College to learn more about potential legislation weakening defined-benefit pensions.

Retirees packed the chapel at Macalester College to learn more about potential legislation weakening defined-benefit pensions.

“We will be listened to,” retired truck driver Bob McNattin, a leader of Save Our Pensions-MN, told the assembled retirees. “They cannot treat us this way.”

[McNattin’s group will take its message directly to Kline this Saturday with a 10 a.m. demonstration outside the congressman’s Burnsville office, at 350 W. Burnsville Pkwy.]

While the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 dealt a blow to the rights of retirees in critically underfunded multiemployer plans, Kline’s latest proposal, known in Washington as the “composite bill,” has a much broader reach.

It would allow healthy pension plans to split in two, with a “legacy plan” following the defined-benefit model and a “composite plan” that, pension attorney Ann Curry Thompson told forum-goers, more closely resembles a 401(k). The composite plan would base retirees’ benefits on the performance of its investments and, critically, receive no backing from the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation.

Allowing employers and pension administrators to divert money from defined-benefit plans and into composite plans would almost certainly increase the number of federally insured funds facing critical shortfalls – and make more retirees vulnerable to benefit cuts made legal by Kline’s 2014 reform bill, Curry Thompson warned.

Bill Moore, president of the Minnesota State Retiree Council, AFL-CIO, said the prevailing attitude in Congress regarding pension reform – that the only solution is to cut benefits earned by working people – is dangerously skewed in employers’ favor.

“A pension is not a legacy,” Moore said. “It is not a gift from our employers… It’s deferred compensation.” Despite retirees’ advancing age, Moore added, “one thing we don’t forget is the hours and days and number of years that we put in to earn our pensions.”

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan checked a fact with pension attorney Ann Curry Thompson while addressing retirees Dec. 3.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan checked a fact with pension attorney Ann Curry Thompson while addressing retirees Dec. 3.

At least three members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation haven’t forgotten either. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken – all DFLers – spoke at the forum Saturday in opposition to Kline’s composite bill.

“Promises made should be kept,” Klobuchar said.

Lawmakers also pledged to remain vigilant for any attempt to sneak the composite bill through the lame-duck Congress.

A day before the forum, Franken sent a letter to leaders of both parties in the House and Senate urging that any pension legislation “be carefully considered and debated openly and honestly, not enacted at the last minute with little debate, few hearings and no opportunity to offer amendments.”

Franken also offered a potential tool for the Pensions Benefit Guarantee Corporation to help struggling pensions, like the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund, meet their obligations: closing a tax loophole on carried interest – a provision of the tax code exploited only by “the top one-tenth of the 1 percent,” Franken said.

Regardless of how it happens, Curry Thompson said, Congress can’t afford to let pension funds leave retirees high and dry. The economic fallout of pension failure makes retirees “too big to fail.”

“As politically unpopular as it is, what is really needed is a … public solution,” Curry Thompson said, noting that pensioners spend money, pay taxes and contribute to economic growth. “I’ll call it what it is. You need a bailout.”

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Comments

  1. Douglas white says:

    This proposal is so underhanded,know wonder Kline dealt from the bottom of the deck. This isn’t a gift Kline I worked my ass off for 30 years…….how dare you!

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