By Marc Kovac
After years of debate and studies and weeks of public hearings, the Ohio House and Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved changes to the state’s five public-employee pension systems.
The final votes were mostly unanimous, with Republicans and Democrats supporting the process and the resulting law changes, which were backed by the systems.
It was a contrast to 2011, when public employees and Republican lawmakers were at odds over Senate Bill 5. It was during the height of those protests and union outcry that the GOP-controlled legislature postponed pension reform, ordering one more actuarial study to ensure proposed changes would secure retiree benefits for decades to come.
Rep. Kirk Schuring, a Republican from Canton who headed the subcommittee that met sometimes twice a week over the summer to hammer out the final details, called Wednesday’s vote the “culmination of many years of work” and “the most significant reform measure since public retirement started in Ohio back in the early 20th Century.”
The final changes, which head to Gov. John Kasich for his expected signature, will affect retirees of 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.
Though details vary from system to system, the bills include 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 receiving potentially reduced benefits.
Some changes include adding years of service required for retirement benefits, increasing the number of years used to determine final average salaries and potentially lowering cost of living adjustments.
“Although each system approaches its reform measures differently, there is a common theme, a common thread, throughout each,” Schuring said. “And that is they adjust pension benefits, and in some instances increased employee contributions, and they use those dollars to pay down their unfunded liability and bolster their health care insurance fund.”
He added, “Make no mistake about it, these measures, as painful as they might be, will stabilize the systems and preserve valuable retirement benefits for public retirees and active members who look to retire in the future.”
The approvals Wednesday were praised by Republicans and Democrats, including Bob Hagan, a minority party member from Youngstown and frequent critic of GOP-supported legislation.
“The legislative process has been deliberate, cooperative, and based on consensus, and the reform approved today will allow those who pay into the system to be able to plan confidently for their retirement,” he said in a statement.