After being stuck at the starting line for weeks, pension
legislation is finally advancing.
The House Government Operations Committee voted 9-2 on
Wednesday to recommend a pension bill that overhauls the system’s governing
board and establishes a summer task force to draw up a plan to tackle its
The bill now heads to the Appropriations Committee and is
expected to be on the House floor next week.
The pension debate has become substantially less heated
since House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, announced that lawmakers
would put off any reform of the system’s employee contributions and retiree
benefits until next year. Some disagreement remains about who will be at the
table when a new proposal is crafted this summer.
Reps. Bob Hooper, D-Burlington, and Tanya Vyhovsky,
P/D-Essex, were the lone “no” votes Wednesday, echoing concerns from the state
employee and teachers unions that the task force would not adequately represent
The bill “has moved a decent amount,” said Hooper, a former
president of the Vermont State Employees’ Association, but it “has not moved
enough in the issues that I find important, and it has not recognized the
voices that I heard from Vermonters on those two public hearings adequately to
look on it favorably.”
The current bill would give six spots on the task force to
union representatives, six to lawmakers, one to the commissioner of financial
regulation, one to the commissioner of human resources and another to the
retirement director at the state treasurer’s office.
The unions think their representatives should make up half
the task force and argue that lawmakers — who must approve ever-growing
payments to the pension system each year — should not be considered neutral
“Legislators think that they aren’t management, but from our
members’ perspective, with all the things that legislators have power over,
they are viewed as the management,” said Steve Howard, executive director of
the Vermont State Employees’ Association, which represents most state
But some lawmakers bristled at this. “I don’t consider
myself part of management,” Rep. John Gannon, D-Wilmington, told his colleagues
in the government operations committee Wednesday. “I am starting to feel
insulted by those comments, because it seems to lump us with management as
potentially enemies of labor, and I totally agree with — disagree with that.”
Several factors have contributed to the combined $3 billion
unfunded liability in the state employee and teacher pensions, including poor
investment returns, and lawmakers argue a revamped pension investment board can
get better results.
The bill, if enacted into law, would also turn Vermont’s
seven-member pension investment committee into a 10-member commission. Labor
leaders have concerns, saying that the three employee representatives would be
too easily outvoted by others less sympathetic to their cause.
The commission would also include two financial experts
appointed by the governor, one member representing municipalities and another
representing school boards, the state treasurer and the commissioner of
financial regulation. That commission’s chair would be appointed by the other
Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the Vermont-National
Education Association, said the bill was an improvement over previous
iterations, but the union would continue to advocate equal representation. The
task forces’ charge is also “still weighted very heavily into austerity,” he
said, and the union would press the Senate, which has not yet taken a pass at
the legislation, to more fully consider alternatives to cutting benefits.
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