Thursday, May 27, 2010

House Committee Approves Senate Passed Retirement Bills - by- Robyn Ekings

The House Committee on Retirement today passed two bills onto the full House that would affect the Louisiana State Employees' Retirement System (LASERS) and its members. SB 13, by Morgan City Senator Butch Gautreaux, calls for the garnishment of pension benefits for restitution or to cover the cost of incarceration of a public employee or elected official charged with a felony conviction associated with the office or position held by that individual. The measure was unanimously approved by the panel, after members, like Representative Jack Montoucet expressed relief that they could "send a message back home that I'm not really in support of stealing. There have been several other bills that called for the forfeiture of retirement benefits for public servants convicted of certain crimes, but opponents have cited concerns that those proposals would create federal constitutional issues.”

SB 58, also by Senator Gautreaux, would allow members to purchase up to 5 years of service, "air time" to add to their retirement eligibility. To make the transaction, the member would have to be already vested in the system. The bill was offered in the wake of a state Streamlining Commission recommendation aimed at reducing the state workforce. Supporters say the employees who ended up taking advantage of the measure would likely be replaced by lower salaried workers. Cindy Rougeou, Executive Director of LASERS, told lawmakers that the bill would not create any new cost to the system and was revenue neutral.

Senator Gautreaux, who is also the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Retirement, had a tougher time with SB 602, which would begin a phase out of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP). The Senator argued that many people have come to him expressing their regret about making the irrevocable decision to enter DROP. "They want relief," said Gautreaux, "but you can't go back in time." Committee Vice-Chairman, Representative Jean Doerge of Minden countered "that we have many people who would like to see this program continue.” "Let me assure you,” Cindy Rougeou told members, "they are provided with extensive information about options like DROP. We have one-on-one counseling, our Pre-retirement Education Program (PREP), our website and various publications that deal with this." After a lengthy discussion, Senator Gautreaux voluntarily deferred his plan.

Also today in Committee, House Speaker Jim Tucker again delayed a vote on HB 1229, his proposal to merge the investments of the four state retirement systems, including LASERS. Chairman Kevin Pearson made the announcement, saying the bill will be brought up next week with "dramatic changes." The Speaker has said that the move to put investments under a single state commission that would manage the money would save on expenses for the state. The systems oppose the plan, saying that the current structure allows for efficient management and the ability to tailor investments to the unique needs of members of each system.

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