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Vermont Senate committee holds public hearing on pension task force recommendations

Vermont Statehouse  (file photo)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Vermont Statehouse (file)

Vermont legislators have been working to find a way to reverse a growing deficit in the state’s pension fund. The legislature’s Senate Committee on Government Operations held a public hearing this week regarding recommendations from a state task force.

In the first half of the legislature’s biennium the Vermont Legislature created a task force to form recommendations to close a more than $3 billion deficit in the state’s public employee retirement fund. Following last week’s release of the report, the Senate Committee on Government Operations held a public hearing Tuesday on the recommendations.

Alison Sylvester has been teaching for 22 years. She is vice president of the Vermont NEA and was a member of its internal pension task force. She said the state task force created a fair and reasonable package where both the state and teachers shore up the pension system and assure its future solvency.

“The state will be adding $125 million towards the unfunded liability plus an annual commitment of an additional $15 million to our pension system while teachers will be phasing in a progressive contribution structure over the next three years and delaying our own COLA for 12 more months. These along with other changes will fulfill our obligations over time ensuring that the pension system is healthy and viable now and into the future.” Sylvester added, “With the creation of the Vermont Pension Investment Commission and the Legislative Joint Public Pension Oversight Committee we will have teachers and state employees working collaboratively with the legislature to make certain the state, teachers and state employees never again get to the point where our pension plans are at risk.”

Teacher Peter Booth was part of an NEA task force on pensions. He said his peers remain concerned about their pensions despite compromises in the state proposal.

“To me personally the most important thing is that the pension continues to exist and gets healthy. But there are a lot of teachers who sort of signed on more than 30 years ago thinking I’m going to teach for 30 years and then have a really solid pension. And it keeps getting chipped away at. And what people who are upset keep saying is I’m glad you’ve solved this problem but where will you be in 10 years when this happens again?”

Both Karen Denniston and her husband are state employees. She says their future is directly tied to the pension fund, and the current plan is unacceptable.

“The recommendations that were put forth were a dramatic improvement over last winter’s recommendations. However I still think that this plan is unacceptable and I urge you to reject some of the employee concessions. That being said I am a reasonable person and I ‘m open to paying more if means preserving the pension that I was told I could plan on receiving for myself and for others. I’m even open to paying more based on my income,” said Denniston. “My concern is that this plan increases my contributions over the course of the next 5 years and does the same to my husband’s. And here’s the kicker. This is all while I’m being told that I can plan to receive far less in return in the future.”

On Wednesday the Government Operations Committee met again to review the public hearing. Committee members were surprised that only 12 people signed up and five of those were no shows. Windsor Democratic Senator Alison Clarkson is disappointed there weren’t more comments.

“I have to say I was discouraged we didn’t hear from just more. You know there are 20,000 people out there that might have wanted to weigh in and I just, I guess I was a little disappointed by how few people showed up to weigh in on something so important,” Clarkson said. “But it leaves us to making assumptions that everyone’s sanguine with it. I was surprised by an issue this important that we had so few people participate.”

The committee is working on a bill and the committee expects to review a draft next week.

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