Monday, April 23, 2012

Retirement Changes Could Worsen Louisiana Agencies' Woes

Apr. 20, 2012
Written by
The Associated Press

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana's elections, agriculture and utility regulators say the governor's retirement proposals could drive some of their most qualified staffers from their employment rolls.

And those losses, Secretary of State Tom Schedler and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain today told the Senate Finance Committee, could worsen problems at their agencies, where they face budget cuts they say could shutter museums, force layoffs and reduce firefighting capability and agriculture inspections.

The committee is combing through Gov. Bobby Jindal's $25.5 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It includes cuts across the departments run by statewide elected officials and assumes major retirement changes that would lessen benefits for rank-and-file state workers and charge them more for their pensions.

Schedler said he expects to lose five of his key elections officials if the Jindal retirement legislation passes because they will want to leave before the changes take effect. They'd leave as Louisiana is preparing for the presidential and congressional elections Nov. 6, the secretary of state noted. "I'd leave too, quite frankly, but it's a very scary position for me."

Combined with early retirements and jobs slashed from his department in past rounds of budget cuts, Schedler said he doesn't have a list of trained employees to take the place of the women who develop the ballots and run elections throughout the state. "These people leave, I have no one to replace them. Could I fill it with people who understand that job and who could fix a voting machine? No."

Strain said the Agriculture and Forestry Department has more than 200 people eligible to retire, and his agency estimates 75 to 150 will if the governor's retirement package passes.

He said those experience losses would hit his agency as it could be shrinking its firefighting force, shutting down its meat inspection program and eliminating inspectors and lab analysts if lawmakers back the current budget cuts proposed by Jindal.

Employee retirements would increase the agencies' pension costs and could add termination pay costs to their expenses, while department chiefs also would be looking to fill some of their top management jobs.

One retirement proposal would increase the amount state workers pay toward their retirement to 11 percent of their salary, up from 8 percent. Another would require employees to work longer to get their full retirement benefits, to as much as 67 years old, depending on their current age and how many years they've been in the system.

Other measures would make it much tougher for retirement systems to pass cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and would calculate the monthly retirement payment on an employee's top five years of salary instead of three years.

Jindal has described the bills as a way to rein in costs of pension programs that are more than $18 billion short of the funding they'll need to pay for all the benefits promised. He said the current system is unsustainable, threatens to eat into taxpayer dollars needed for other state services and jeopardizes the ability to provide pensions to employees.

After Schedler's testimony, Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, began asking office chiefs how many people they estimate would retire if the retirement changes are enacted.

Assistant Attorney General Renee Free said 68 state Justice Department employees — about 14 percent of the agency's work force and more than half of its upper management staff — are expected to retire if lawmakers approve the pension changes.

The state Insurance Department estimates about 10 percent of its staff would leave their jobs. And the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates state utilities, said as many as 20 people there likely would retire, about 20 percent of its work force.

"A number of these are department heads with a lot of institutional knowledge," said Eve Gonzalez, the commission's executive secretary. "It takes a lot of time to understand it and start working it. It's a pretty long learning curve."

Gonzalez said Jindal's budget recommendations also assume savings that won't be reached since the governor's retirement bills have been tweaked. If the savings aren't hit and the budget stays as proposed, she said, the Public Service Commission would have to lay off another nine workers on top of any of those lost to retirements.

Lawmakers aren't expected to craft a final version of the 2012-13 budget until the final days of the legislative session, which must end June 4.

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