Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Pension hikes for Louisiana retirees clear first legislative hurdle

The Advocate
Mark Ballard
A cost-of-living increase for retired state workers cleared its first hurdle Monday, but only after a Louisiana Senate committee tied the raise in monthly pension checks to two other bills that would revamp aspects of the state retirement systems.
Senate Retirement Committee Chairman Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, said all three bills would have to pass the Legislature and be signed by the governor in order for retirees to see 1.5 percent to 2 percent more in their monthly pension checks. But he didn’t see that as a problem.
“Right now, everybody’s in favor,” Peacock said in an interview after the hearing.
Peacock amended his Senate Bill 2, which awards retirees cost-of-living adjustments, called COLAs, to the passage of Senate Bill 5, which would require the retirement systems to timely pay administrative costs rather than roll those charges into the 30-year debt; and of Senate Bill 18, which would reduce the amortization period — paying off debt on a fixed schedule — from 30 years to 20 years.
“It ensures that we get the proper funding mechanisms in place,” Peacock said.
In awarding the COLAs, Peacock acknowledged that the inflationary trigger had not been met under state law. The other criterion that allows lawmakers to increase the monthly pension checks have, he said.
“It’s true, in the last 12 months there has been virtually no inflation,” Peacock said. But during the previous 24 months, inflation was enough to allow the COLA, and the chairman says he chooses to interpret the law that way.
The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers, or CPI-U, is the federal calculation for the prices paid for goods and services paid by consumers. Though the cost of food, clothing, shelter and medical care grew during the past 12 months, the index was offset by dramatic reductions in the costs for fuel.
Frank L. Jobert Jr., the legislative and governmental affairs director for the Retired State Employees Association of Louisiana, argued that the CPI-U was misleading and shouldn’t be included in the law that allows for cost-of-living increases for retirees. Health care costs, for instance, have gone up considerably and this is a cost important to the elderly.
“I’m not sure the CPI-U is a true measure,” he said.
Steven Procopio, policy director at the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said he understood the needs for COLAs and the reason for granting them this year. But, the law, which specified inflation for the previous 12 months, was put in place two years to provide some order and fiscal responsibility in granting the increases.
Circumventing the criteria was not prudent, he said. “It basically undoes what the law does,” Procopio testified.
If SB2 — and the other two measures — are ultimately approved, nearly 125,000 pensioners over the age of 60, who have been retired for at least a year, would receive a bump in their monthly checks. Based on calculation of how well funded each of the state systems are, retired state workers and retired public school teachers would receive a 1.5 percent increase; retired school workers would get 1.9 percent; and retired State Police troopers and staff would receive at least 2 percent more.
The average monthly increase would be about $30, but could vary based on the circumstances of individual retirees.
The money comes from an account where excess investment earnings were deposited and the $380 million ultimate cost would not come from the state budget, which is $750 million in the red.
The Senate Retirement Committee, without objection, reported SB2 and SB18 favorably to the full Senate.

SB5 already has been approved by the Senate and has been assigned to the House Retirement Committee for consideration.

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