Thursday, May 10, 2012

Votes Canceled on Pension Revamp Measures

By Marsha Shuler
Capitol news bureau

May 10, 2012

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s heavily revised state employee pension revamp stalled Wednesday in the Louisiana Senate.

State Sen. Elbert Guillory abruptly canceled planned votes on the two most controversial measures — those raising employee contributions and retirement age — after it took two votes to gain state Senate passage of a third measure that would effectively reduce employee benefits.

“I need to count my votes,” Guillory told reporters later about the delay.

Neither Guillory nor Jindal chief of staff Stephen Waguespack said the change of plans indicates they feared that the legislation was in trouble.

Waguespack said the administration planned to meet with state Senate leadership Wednesday night and decide whether to take the other bills in the pension package up Thursday or wait until early next week.

Guillory launched debate on the three-bill pension overhaul package as Gov. Bobby Jindal declared Wednesday “State Employee Appreciation Day.”

Guillory said the legislation is not as harsh as it was when Jindal proposed it because of changes senators made after talking to state employees and retirement system executives.

The package of bills “make the responsible changes in a gradual, gentle, non-destructive fashion,” said Guillory, D-Opelousas.

Guillory said something must be done to erase long-term liabilities of the pension systems so promised benefits will be there and retired employees not end up in “welfare lines.”

The changes will result in $100 million going every year toward paying off the retirement systems’ long-term liabilities, he said.

The changes impact the retirement of more than 50,000 members of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System — except hazardous duty employees and judges — and higher education members of the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana, called TRSL.

The state employee system, called LASERS, and the Teachers system claim the legislation unconstitutionally breaks contracts with employees as they alter terms and conditions.

The Louisiana Retired State Employees Association has said it would go to court if the changes become law.

Guillory asked senators to approve Senate Bill 47 first. SB47 would change the computation of pension system benefits from an average of three years of compensation to an average of five years average compensation. The Senate version would phase the change in a month at a time with it completed by July 2015.

On a first vote the measure came up one vote shy of the 20 votes needed for Senate passage with a 19-16 vote. Guillory said he was surprised. Jindal’s staffers were watching the proceedings from a gallery beside the chamber.

After some scrambling, state Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said his machine had malfunctioned and sought a revote.

The Senate agreed and approved the amended bill on a 23-13 vote.

But the hiccup prompted Guillory to delay votes on the other measures.

“I was taken by surprise. There were several votes that should have been yeas that were nays,” said Guillory. “There are several I need to talk to among my colleagues and see what problems they may have.”

Action was postponed on:
  • Senate Bill 52 would increase state employee pension contributions by 2 percent, phased in one-half of 1 percent a year until July 1, 2016. Jindal had set out to impose a 3 percent employee increase all at once.
  • Senate Bill 749 would establish new retirement ages depending on years of employment for people with fewer than 20 years of pension membership. Jindal set out with an age 67 retirement age proposal with few exemptions. The Senate version exempts more longtime employees and sets up different ages for different years of employment.

Before approving SB47, the final average compensation measure, the state Senate rejected an attempt to exempt higher education employees.

“The biggest problem that we have is keeping qualified professors. It is an extremely competitive field,” said state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, who said the pension change would be detrimental.

Long’s effort failed with 13 senators voting to exempt higher education employees and 23 opposing it.

The Senate adopted an amendment sponsored by state Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, under which the change could not be implemented until expected lawsuits over the legislation’s constitutionality are decided.

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