By Marc Kovac
The Ohio House plans to begin hearings this month on potential changes to the state’s five public- employee pension systems, after the release of a study Wednesday that included recommendations for built-in triggers and individual board authority to alter benefits based on fund performance.
But lawmakers haven’t determined whether any action on the pension reform packages will occur before or after the November election. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have called for swift action, moving legislation before they broke for the summer; Republicans in the House, awaiting the results of the new study, say they’ll hold hearings to make sure the resulting legislation is enough to ensure future retiree benefits.
“It’s the intentions of House Republicans and myself as sponsor of the bill to get pension reform done this year, which is what the pension systems asked us to do,” said Rep. Lynn Wacthmann, a Republican from Napoleon.
The Ohio Senate already signed off on a series of bills changing eligibility, contribution levels and other provisions in state law related to the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund, the School Employees Retirement System, the State Teachers Retirement System, the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System and the Highway Patrol Retirement System.
The bills propose a number of changes to eligibility, cost-of-living increases and other retirement benefits in a way that generally allows those closer to retirement to be covered under existing guidelines and those farther away to fall under potentially reduced benefits. A couple of the systems would increase employee contributions to plans in coming years.
All of the changes were recommended by the individual pension funds, with support from union groups. The systems involve more than 1.8 million Ohioans.
Comparable changes have been discussed for several years, and lawmakers were poised to act early last year. Increases in employee contribution rates initially were included in the biennial budget bill. But that language was pulled, and the Ohio Retirement Study Council moved forward with an actuarial study of the five state pension systems .
In a joint statement, Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus and Minority Leader Eric Kearney said the final results of the actuarial study, reviewed by the Ohio Retirement Study Council Wednesday, backed their decision to act on the issue.
“In reference to passing pension reform legislation, the report states ‘We see no valid reason for delay,’” they said in the statement. “This study confirms the legislation passed by the Senate ‘…will put each of the five retirement systems in a much more solid financial position.’ It is important to note, the Senate reforms do not require any additional taxpayer dollars. ... We encourage our colleagues in the House of Representatives to join us in passing this pension legislation without any further delay.”
Republican House Speaker Bill Batchelder indicated this week that action on pension legislation could take place before the end of the summer, meaning lawmakers would have to be called back to Columbus before the general election.