State retirement system study stirs concerns

Published 6:00 pm Sunday, September 25, 2011

Local lawmakers and candidates forlegislative offices are assuring voters they do not support anychanges to the Public Employees Retirement System for currentbeneficiaries, but they disagree as to whether a legitimate threatto PERS exists.

    “Just the appointment of this committee is putting fear intoretirees,” said District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, referring to acommittee appointed by Gov. Haley Barbour to study the long-termviability of the state pension system.

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    Moak, D-Bogue Chitto, is unopposed in November, but is running tobe speaker of the House of Representatives.

    District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, has a different takeon the issue of “fear.”

    “I think it’s the usual Democratic fear-mongering,” Curriesaid.

    The study group has no authority to alter PERS. It will onlyprepare a report for the Legislature for lawmakers to consider.

    The bipartisan 14-member Legislative Budget Committee earlier thisweek unanimously passed a resolution saying they would not supportany recommendations that would prohibit an individual from gettinga cost of living adjustment. That adjustment is often referred toamong retirees as the “13th check,” a lump sum payment on top ofmonthly retirement income checks.

    Currie said the purpose of the study is simply to ensure thepension fund is financially secure.

      “The Democrats are using it as ascare tactic to gain votes in November,” Currie said. “I guess thatis the only way they can get votes.”

    Moak said the voter fear he believes exists concerning the PERSstudy is not the result of a concerted effort by any politicalgroup.

    “I don’t think there has been any pandering,” Moak said. “They(retirees) have just been watching legislative politics and areafraid of what is going to happen. It’s simply a founded fear theyhave.”

    Moak believes Republicans are trying to distance themselves fromany controversy ignited by Barbour’s appointment of the studygroup.

    “Even Phil Bryant is heading under the desk on this one,” Moaksaid, referring to a statement by the current lieutenant governorand Republican nominee for governor that he would not support anychanges to the pension system for current retirees.

    On that point, Bryant, Currie and Moak are all in agreement.

    “These promises were made a long time ago. If any changes were tohappen it would happen to people getting into the system in thefuture,” Currie said. “I won’t support changes to anyone that isemployed right now and is waiting to retire.”

    Moak said he is “sticking with the retirees on this one.”

    Currie’s Democratic opponent in the Nov. 8 general election KenDale Sullivan did not differ from Currie or Moak on the question ofaltering PERS. He said the state’s obligations must be kept.

    He did disagree with Currie’s charge of “fear-mongering.”

    “I don’t think it is a scare tactic,” Sullivan said. “When peopleare looking at changing retirement benefits, there is cause forgenuine concern.”

    Currie said that she does not know of anyone that is for changingretirement benefits, at least for current beneficiaries.

    Currie and Moak did agree that the state’s retirement package hasbeen a means of attracting and retaining employees. Sullivan saidthe retirement benefits have been a means of compensating for somepositions, such as teaching, where Mississippi’s wages arerelatively low.

    “I don’t have a problem with reviewing the system to make sure itis strong and functioning,” Sullivan said. “I just don’t want tosee anything done to it that would make it hard to attract newteachers.”

    Sally Doty, Republican candidate for Senate District 39, alsostated she would oppose any PERS alterations that would affectcurrent retirees.

    As to the question of whether she would support changes affectingfuture retirees, Doty said, “I’ll be curious to see the results ofthis study.”

    Doty said any fears on the part of retirees are largely based onmisunderstanding.

    “We have to look at our public retirement system and make sure thatit stays solvent and is viable,” Doty said. “I hope people willunderstand what the purpose of the committee is, to study and notto eliminate. It’s an election year, so some people have read intothat committee some things that aren’t there.”

    Doty’s Democratic opponent W.L. Rayborn could not be reached forcomment, but has run advertisements stating he will “never vote tochange” PERS.

    Doty and Rayborn are running for the seat currently held by Sen.Cindy Hyde-Smith, who is now running for state agriculturecommissioner.