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Day's pension stories should arouse voting public

By Dick Ahles

Publication: The Day

Published January 26. 2014 4:00AM

They won't like hearing this but Connecticut's retired public employees have become a privileged class. The evidence is beyond dispute:

They received the highest annual pensions in the country in 2011, the last year on record, despite contributing less than the national average from their paychecks.

They retire at an average age of just over 57 at a time when the private sector retires workers at 65, going on 70 because people are living far longer than they did when Social Security established 65 for retirement.

They retire and begin to collect their pensions most frequently after 20 years while the average private sector worker spends 50 to 100 percent more time working before getting a pension.

Their health insurance continues to be covered after retirement. It becomes an immediate extra, significant expense for retirees in the rest of the work force.

Want more? The average employee contributes a pittance toward retirement, about two thirds of one year's pension of $31,666 - or $20,355 - during the years he or she works in a state job. State employees didn't begin contributing to their health insurance, which continues in retirement, until last year. Pensions are based not only on average salaries but overtime, which traditionally increases impressively in many employees' final years.

Or how about this? It would cost each man, woman and child in the state $12,157 to close the $44 billion funding gap maintained by the state's two largest pension systems and its two health benefit programs for retirees.

If you think "privileged" isn't applicable, suggest a more descriptive adjective.

These are just a few of the points made in a remarkable and frightening series of reports by Johanna Somers of this newspaper on a pension plan that could bankrupt the state. Its timing is excellent. We have the election of a governor and legislature this November, affording those seeking these offices the opportunity to address this most pressing issue facing Connecticut's taxpayers and their descendants.

But don't expect much. There are 45,000 state workers represented by 15 unions in the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition and no candidate wants to antagonize them by doing too much to alter their privileged status.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy deserves some credit for reopening the state's contract with SEBAC after his election in 2010. In that first term, he managed to increase the retirement eligibility age for many state employees, ended an agreement that allowed the state to contribute less to the pension fund than actuaries recommend and made state employees contribute to their health care for the first time.

But he didn't touch most of the abuses reported by The Day and has no desire to revisit the problems this election year. He has already said he doesn't foresee reopening the agreement but intends instead to execute "the changes we have made and making sure that we maximize those benefits." Big deal.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican candidate for governor and a less likely recipient of employee union largesse, believes the next governor "is going to have to look at opening up the contract again to make sure that we have an agreement in place with state employees that better reflects the economy we live in."

We can expect the other Republican candidates for governor to make similarly vague points without getting specific about actual reforms unless we - the voters and the media - insist.

The Day made a fine start if enough people were paying attention and able to digest all the disturbing information contained in reporter Somers' series. But it's only one daily newspaper, with fewer subscribers than SEBAC has unionized employees. Only an aroused public, made aware of this incredibly important issue by more than one or two newspapers, can affect the changes that are necessary.

Following the series, The Day suggested some moderate reforms like raising the retirement age to 65 for those in most jobs, requiring contributions to pensions more in line with the private sector and placing a cap on pension payouts after Somers found a retired UConn professor enjoying a pension of $276,000 a year.

You can't blame him for taking the pension but you can and should blame a bunch of governors and legislators and insist that the next ones fix this mess.

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