Legislature sets its sights on pensions

Published 11:06 pm Thursday, November 12, 2015

The seeds of disaster for the 340,000 RSA members were apparent in comments made by two legislators during a hearing last week.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, co-chairman of the recently formed Joint Committee on Alabama Public Pensions, was reassuring.
“I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Orr said, with the public fearing the Legislature “is looking at the retirement system to shore up the budgets, which is not true.”
And to underline Orr’s point, the committee approved a resolution saying it was not the Legislature’s role to manage the day-to-day operations of retirement plans and that the committee does not intend to make changes that would affect the monthly benefits of active or retired employees.
Sounds great, right? This is about making sure RSA manages funds well, not about grasping for money. Nothing to see here, folks.
Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, a member of the House General Fund committee and co-chairman with Orr of the joint pension committee, didn’t get the memo.
“We wouldn’t have been down here in special sessions (to pass a 2016 budget),” Greer said the same day, referring to the $941 million the state contributed to the pension system last fiscal year. “We’re looking at next year a General Fund budget that looks much worse than this year’s, and if we had (the money spent on pensions), we could be putting it there.”
So whatever Orr’s motives, the Legislature’s focus on RSA has everything to do with shoring up the General Fund.
The 340,000 RSA members include not just state employees, but city and county employees and education employees.
Teachers and other education employees have a growing appreciation for how dangerous the Legislature can be when cornered by desperately inadequate revenue and an ideological refusal to raise taxes. The same predicament has led the Legislature to ransack the Education Trust Fund so brazenly that the word “Trust” in the fund’s name is barely legible.
Orr said the fiscal 2017 budget is shaping up to be worse than this year’s, with the state needing $30 million to $50 million in new money just to maintain services at their current, grossly inadequate, levels.
And Orr made clear there is “very, very little likelihood of any new . tax bills passing.” The rejection of taxes as a method of increasing revenue is a relief to the wealthy Alabamians who would be affected by any responsible tax reform, but it should terrify RSA members. People surviving on state pensions, or expecting to one day, have good reason to be concerned.
Not only do legislators see in RSA a cash cow that could solve all their problems, most would get pleasure out of sticking it to RSA chief David Bronner. He has not been timid about standing up to lawmakers, a strategy both he and RSA members may come to regret.
It may be, as Orr long has insisted, that RSA needs reform. It may even be that responsible reforms would benefit RSA members by making their pensions more secure.
Can RSA members trust their representatives to limit themselves to responsible reforms?
Sadly, it’s a question that answers itself.

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