Lawmakers urge caution on PERS changes

Published 7:00 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lincoln County legislators are pledgingcaution in response to a study released last week recommendingchanges to the state Public Employees Retirement System, thoughlawmakers disagree as to the magnitude of the proposed changes.

    “It’s not fair to those that are drawing benefits to change therules of the game,” said District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-BogueChitto, echoing a sentiment many legislators expressed prior toNovember’s state elections.

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    Moak singled out for opposition a proposed three-year freeze onincreases to the annual cost of living adjustment, commonly calledthe 13th check. Under the current system, the 13th check increasesby 3 percent every year.

    “I’m not for freezing retirees out,” Moak said.

    District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, also said she wouldlike to avoid a freeze.

     “I’m going to doeverything I can to not change anything for those in (PERS) rightnow,” Currie said. “I’m not anticipating a freeze.”

    However, Currie did acknowledge that a freeze might be preferableto some foreseeable alternatives.

    “I’d much rather freeze it and have (retirees) still get theirmoney than have to say in three years ‘you can’t get your check atall.'” Currie said. “The system is solvent, and we need to keep itsolvent.”

    However, Currie said she believes ways can be found to save moneythat do not involve a COLA freeze. She suggested the retirement agecould be raised for future employees, emphasizing that this wouldnot affect current employees.

    Newly elected District 39 Sen. Sally Doty said she wants to ensureretirees understand there is no proposal to halt the 13th checkitself.

    “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that,” said Doty,who will take office in January. “It is not freezing the 13thcheck, only increases to that check would be frozen for threeyears.”

    As to whether she would support such a freeze, Doty said she hasnot had enough time to study all the available options. She saidshe will approach the issue with the interests of retirees inmind.

    “I tell people, my father collects state employment,” Doty said.”I’m going to be very careful right because it is close to myfamily.”

    Prior to the Nov. 8 general election, Moak, Currie and Dotyindicated opposition to any proposals that would alter PERS forcurrent retirees or current state employees waiting to retire.

    When asked if she thought retirees would view a COLA freeze as analteration of the system for current beneficiaries, Doty said shedoes not know, and added she is soliciting comments fromconstituents through her Facebook page to hear their views on thesubject.

    “I do think retirees understand we have to do what is necessary tomaintain the long-term viability of the system,” Doty said.

    Also to the question of whether a freeze changes the system forcurrent retirees, Currie reaffirmed her commitment to preservingbenefits for current beneficiaries and employees.

    “I don’t anticipate any changes for current members,” Curriesaid.

    Gov. Haley Barbour appointed the commission in August to study thelong-term viability of PERS. Estimates indicate the state only hasenough money to fund 65 percent of PERS benefits over the next 30years.

    Moak does not believe a current lack of funding justifies changesto the system.

    “What we are fighting against is, the system lost a lot of money inthe stock market. How much of that has been recovered, I don’tknow,” Moak said. “You have to look at the full system and not justlisten to someone say ‘there is a problem we need to react.'”

    The report proposed changes to PERS, but is nonbinding. Only theLegislature can alter PERS.

    In addition to the COLA freeze, the report also recommended tyingthe amount of the COLA to the actual rate of inflation rather thangranting an automatic 3 percent increase annually.

    Moak, Currie and Doty indicated familiarity with this proposal butdid not provide firm opinions on it yet. All three said they hadnot fully read the report yet and could not offer detailed commenton some of the proposed changes.