Thursday, May 19, 2011

House Committee Approves Bill to Raise Employee Contribution Rates for Many LASERS Members - by Robyn Ekings

The House Retirement Committee voted today 6-4 to pass an administration backed bill to up by 3% contribution rates for the various categories of LASERS members, other than those in hazardous duty positions. HB 479 is estimated to raise approximately $25 million dollars that will go directly into the state’s general fund to help balance the budget. The vote came after a prolonged debate where many members questioned using the funds to balance the budget instead of paying down the debt of the retirement system as is mandated by the state’s constitution. “Frankly, the weakness in your plan is that the money saved goes into the budget, not to pay down the UAL (Unfunded Accrued Liability or debt of several state retirement systems)” said Ruston Representative Hollis Downs. Administration staffer Kristy Nichols told the panel the move was being made to save the taxpayers money. Representative Rogers Pope commented that “one of the issues I have is we’re going to put the additional burden on our state employees to balance our budget.”

LASERS Executive Director Cindy Rougeou reminded lawmakers that LASERS, with a $9.45 billion dollar fund which has grown by $3 billion over the last three years is strong, and that the legislation would result in employees paying down the system debt, something that the state is constitutionally required to do. She added that the proposal creates serious inequities in the LASERS plan by applying the increase to some members and not others.

Among those included in the bill are judges who are in the LASERS system. Judge Raymond Childress protested to the committee saying “we are taxpayers too. It’s not like this is happening in a vacuum.” The bill heads to the house where it faces an additional challenge created earlier in the week by the House Appropriations Committee. That panel stripped the estimated $25 million the benefit payment increase would raise out of the state’s budget blueprint for the new fiscal year, citing the fact that the spending plan had been balanced with money from HB 479, a bill that is only beginning it’s trip through the legislative process.

HB 479 now goes to the full House for a vote. Earlier in the committee meeting, Chairman Representative Kevin Pearson voluntarily deferred HB 530 so members could review proposed changes in the bill, which currently calls for a smaller increase in employee contributions. The LASERS Board of Trustees opposes both measures debated today.

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