22 September 2021

Pension Legislation Inches Forward, But Unions Concerned about Representation

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After being stuck at the starting line for weeks, pension legislation is finally advancing.

The House Government Operations Committee voted 9-2 on Wednesday to recommend a pension bill that overhauls the system’s governing board and establishes a summer task force to draw up a plan to tackle its growing debts.

The bill now heads to the Appropriations Committee and is expected to be on the House floor next week.

The pension debate has become substantially less heated since House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, announced that lawmakers would put off any reform of the system’s employee contributions and retiree benefits until next year. Some disagreement remains about who will be at the table when a new proposal is crafted this summer.

Reps. Bob Hooper, D-Burlington, and Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, were the lone “no” votes Wednesday, echoing concerns from the state employee and teachers unions that the task force would not adequately represent employees.

The bill “has moved a decent amount,” said Hooper, a former president of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, but it “has not moved enough in the issues that I find important, and it has not recognized the voices that I heard from Vermonters on those two public hearings adequately to look on it favorably.”

The current bill would give six spots on the task force to union representatives, six to lawmakers, one to the commissioner of financial regulation, one to the commissioner of human resources and another to the retirement director at the state treasurer’s office.

The unions think their representatives should make up half the task force and argue that lawmakers — who must approve ever-growing payments to the pension system each year — should not be considered neutral parties.

“Legislators think that they aren’t management, but from our members’ perspective, with all the things that legislators have power over, they are viewed as the management,” said Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, which represents most state employees.

But some lawmakers bristled at this. “I don’t consider myself part of management,” Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, told his colleagues in the government operations committee Wednesday. “I am starting to feel insulted by those comments, because it seems to lump us with management as potentially enemies of labor, and I totally agree with — disagree with that.”

Several factors have contributed to the combined $3 billion unfunded liability in the state employee and teacher pensions, including poor investment returns, and lawmakers argue a revamped pension investment board can get better results.

The bill, if enacted into law, would also turn Vermont’s seven-member pension investment committee into a 10-member commission. Labor leaders have concerns, saying that the three employee representatives would be too easily outvoted by others less sympathetic to their cause.

The commission would also include two financial experts appointed by the governor, one member representing municipalities and another representing school boards, the state treasurer and the commissioner of financial regulation. That commission’s chair would be appointed by the other members.

Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the Vermont-National Education Association, said the bill was an improvement over previous iterations, but the union would continue to advocate equal representation. The task forces’ charge is also “still weighted very heavily into austerity,” he said, and the union would press the Senate, which has not yet taken a pass at the legislation, to more fully consider alternatives to cutting benefits.

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