The topic is pension reform, Sen. Osten

We were disappointed to see state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, in her new capacity as co-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, take such a combative posture in questioning and browbeating a witness raising valid concerns; concerns we share.

At issue was a committee hearing on the agreement Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reached with the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition that would put the funding of the state pension system on a firmer foundation.

As things now stand, the state obligation to keep the pension fund solvent could rise to $5 billion by 2030 and in the neighborhood of $6.6 billion by 2032, according to a 2014 study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Given an overall state budget of about $20 billion, an obligation that size is unmanageable.

The proposed deal now before the legislature shifts around $14 billion in pension expenses owed before 2032 onto future generations. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that restructuring the payments, and extending them over a longer period, makes the obligation  manageable. Connecticut would face a payment of $2.2 billion in 2022, remaining about there through 2032, then dropping to $1.8 billion and staying at that level through at least 2046.

The last witness to testify at the hearing was Suzanne Bates, policy director for the conservative Yankee Institute for Public Policy. The hearing is available for viewing on the Connecticut Network website: http://www.ctn.state.ct.us/. Bates' testimony begins around 3:21.

While voicing some reservations about the deal, Bates said the Yankee Institute “recognizes the math” and the need to bring payments under control.

She then made the point, however, that no one should consider this the end of the matter.

“My biggest concern with this agreement is that I don’t want people to think this is pension reform … we believe our pension benefits are too expensive at this point. We would like to see real and significant pension reform occur in the future. So my hope is that this isn’t the end point, but the beginning point for discussions on how to reform our pensions,” Bates said.

It is a point we made in a Dec. 16 editorial. Refinancing the payment of pensions is only part of the solution. State unions need to be prepared to accept modifications in their pension benefits, which far exceed most found in the private sector and are even lavish in comparison to other states.

Osten, who serves the 19th District, took great umbrage over Bates raising the topic.

“Your testimony is the only testimony that has included the term pension reform … I haven’t heard anyone here say this is a complete solution to our pension problem. Are you making an assumption that we are not willing to address the long-term issues that we have?” asked Osten.

“We don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors. Pension reform is a pretty common term …” replied Bates.

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” said Osten, interrupting. “It’s just something that you used as a term for today’s testimony on today’s resolution and this resolution is not about pension reform, it’s about fixing one piece of the puzzle … I am concerned that you would bring an issue to the forefront that is not about the topic for today.”

As the exchange continued, with Osten doing most of the talking and Bates trying to explain her testimony, the senator accused the witness of “muddying your statement by bringing in things that are not relevant to the issue on the table today … and that’s all I have to say.”

But it wasn’t all Bates had to say, to her credit.

“I’m glad to hear you don’t consider this pension reform. That’s a clarification I was hoping to hear,” Bates said.

“But it didn’t need to be clarified,” said Osten, clearly ticked. “The only person who brought the statement up was you. Thank you”

“I’ve heard others characterize it as pension reform in the past,” Bates continued. “So I’m glad to hear you’re not calling it pension reform. And the reason I bring it up today is I hope …”

With that, the co-chair shut her down.

“Thank you, Suzanne, but you’ve answered the question … so we don’t need to go on,” Osten said. And with that, she walked off.

Contacted Wednesday, Osten did not back down, saying she saw nothing wrong with the line of questioning.

It was encouraging to hear Osten say she is open to pension reform ideas and knows they must be part of the solution.

It is also part of the solution, we'd point out, to let everyone have his or her say, without being bullied.

 

 

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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