Friday, March 2, 2012

Report on Pension Changes in Alexandria Daily Town Talk

Retirement age, pension changes for La. state workers on legislative agenda
Mar. 2, 2012
Written by
Bret H. McCormick

PINEVILLE -- Proposals to be considered in the upcoming session of the Louisiana Legislature could lead to a "mass exodus" of experienced state employees.

That warning was sounded Thursday by Cindy Rougeou, executive director of the Louisiana State Employees' Retirement System.

She was among those speaking to retired state employees who gathered at the Main Street Community Center in Pineville to learn about the major issues that could affect them in the legislative session, which starts March 12.

Local and state officials, as well as officials with the retirement system and the Retired State Employees Association, talked about the challenges affecting current and former state employees.

Pineville Mayor Clarence Fields, Alexandria Mayor Jacques M. Roy, state Sen. Gerald Long and state Rep. Herbert Dixon each addressed more than 100 retirees who attended the meeting. In addition, the retirees heard from Frank Jobert, executive director of the Retired State Employees Association, and from Rougeou.

Among the retirement issues and proposals being addressed during the upcoming legislative session is a bill that raises the minimum retirement age to 67 and one that increases employee contribution rates by 3 percent.

Rougeou equated the rate increase to a tax on employees and said the change in retirement age would dramatically affect current employees. Anyone who will be 55 by June 30 is not affected, but younger employees will be.

"These are big issues," she said.

She said several of the proposals being opposed by the Louisiana State Employees' Retirement System are "harsh, inequitable and unconstitutional."

"I fear that there's going to be a mass exodus of employees who are mid-career who provide the services that are needed in this state," Rougeou said.

Jobert said the Retired State Employees Association has taken an increased interest in legislation that affects current employees because once those employees are targeted, retirees could be next.

If some of the major issues are passed in the Legislature, he said, "we will be leading the parade to the courthouse."

Another major issue that Jobert opposes is the privatization of the Louisiana Office of Group Benefits, which handles state employee benefits. Like many services, it has been targeted by Gov. Bobby Jindal for sale and movement into the private sector.

Roy said the idea that is permeating in Baton Rouge that the private sector can provide a better retirement system than the government is false and a serious issue.

"The assault on public workers is not right," Roy said.

Pineville Mayor Fields said he and other local executives, such as Roy, are interested to see how the issues unfold in Baton Rouge because municipalities also face serious issues with pensions and health insurance premiums.

Long, R-Winnfield, who sits on the Senate's Retirement Committee, said he and his fellow legislators are tasked with trying to devise a retirement system that can be successful not only today, but years into the future. Like many other states, Louisiana's four retirement systems were hurt by the economic downturn, but Long said he's committed to finding a solution.

"It's too important to you and too important to me not to get it right," Long said. "I pledge to you that we will get it right."

Dixon, D-Alexandria, is a retired educator, so he said the issue is very important to him. What he hopes can be crafted is a system that is fair to all, and he doesn't believe the change in retirement age is fair to current or future employees.

"That's not fair, folks. We have to do something," he said.

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