Casper College town hall on pension system draws more than 100
By Dan Neal - Equality State Policy Center
A November prediction from the chairman of the Wyoming Retirement System may be fulfilled sooner rather than later.
Steve Sommers, chair of the Wyoming Retirement System (WRS) board of directors, spoke at a question-and-answer session at the last of a series of town hall meetings on Wyoming’s public pension system on Nov. 28. He forecast then that public employees in Wyoming will be asked to contribute more of their pay to ensure that the state public pension system will meet its obligations over the long term.
On Thursday, Dec. 13, the Joint Appropriations Committee directed its staff to prepare legislation for the coming session that would do just that.
The Casper town hall meeting last month attracted more than 100 people anxious to know more about the system and its health. Several expressed concerns about a weekly Casper newspaper’s report on the value of teacher pensions on public perception of the system. Several said that they considered the story misleading because its estimates of the value of an “average” pension rested on assumptions they believed overvalued the benefit by assuming a very long life for a retiree.
The report also focused narrowly on estimating value and did not point out the value of pension payments to community economies across the state.
Natrona County High School art teacher Sheila McHattie told the more than 100 teachers, fire fighters, college instructors and other staffers in attendance that Wyoming’s defined benefit pension system helps retain teachers in her district, especially young math and science teachers who could find work elsewhere relatively easily.
The Wyoming system remains healthy but must be managed carefully, Wyoming Retirement System Director Thom Williams asserted again, just as he has done at three previous town hall meetings staged by the WEA and its allies in the Coalition for a Healthy Retirement System.
Williams explained the system and the changes made by the Legislature during the 2012 session. He noted that increasing employee contributions is one of several levers system managers can use to assure the system’s ability to meet its benefit obligations over time. Board Chair Sommers joined Williams to answer questions. Other members of the state retirement board also attended the town hall meeting in the Nichols Auditorium at Casper College.
The event provided another opportunity to note that teachers, fire fighters, nurses and other public servants rely on the state system to provide a stable income around which they can build their retirement income plans. The system, meanwhile, pays the bulk of all benefits with earnings on investments of funds contributed by state and local employees and their employers, whether the state, county, city, town or local governments. Even special districts and joint powers boards around Wyoming participate in the system.
The system has been attacked by some state policymakers who say the defined benefit system should be closed in order to reduce future obligations. But Williams noted a planned WRS report to the Joint Appropriations Committee in December would show that closing the defined benefit system would do nothing to reduce existing liabilities and would be prohibitively expensive because the funding of obligations to people now in the system would be accelerated. Williams characterized the current system as healthy and providing the lifelong benefits people need. Wyoming and its public employees would lose the advantages of pooling funds for investment by professional managers. Instead, they would be left with individually-managed retirement accounts that studies have shown provide far less in terms of stability and sheer cash value.
Williams repeated his assessment that Wyoming’s system is healthy, especially in comparison to public systems in other states that have been underfunded or where funds were borrowed to support other programs.
Other legislation did bring changes to the system. The Legislature imposed very conservative management standards that, for the foreseeable future, mean retirees will not see any cost of living adjustments to their monthly benefits.
The Coalition for a Healthy Retirement System conducted its series of town hall meetings to educate the public and public employees about the system and to explain why it is crucial to both better government and the state’s economy. More than 250 people attended the meetings.
The Coalition for a Healthy Retirement System includes the Wyoming Education Association, the Wyoming Retired Education Personnel Association, the Wyoming Public Employees Association, the Federated Fire Fighters of Wyoming, AARP Wyoming, the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, the Wyoming Highway Patrol Association, the Wyoming State AFL-CIO, and the Equality State Policy Center.