Michigan leads effort to shift workers away from pensions


Associated Press

LANSING, MICH.

Struggling under the weight of pension and health care obligations, Michigan lawmakers appear ready to take another whack at public employee benefits – a move that reflects renewed determination to shift workers to 401(k)-style retirement systems, even if it happens in baby steps.

Other states have made more modest changes, but the latest push shows that conservatives want to approve big reforms 20 years after Michigan became the first state to close pensions to future state workers. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is pressing to address $14 billion in unfunded liabilities, mostly from retiree medical costs, spread across more than 330 communities.

“As a state, we cannot get ahead if too many of our local communities have problems,” he said.

The proposals could serve as a national blueprint, and they will provoke a pitched battle with public unions that are desperate to preserve traditional benefits.

Michigan is taking a leading role because of its size and the fact that GOP legislators and Snyder turned what was once a stronghold of organized labor into a right-to-work state. They also forced teachers and state employees to contribute a portion of their paychecks to avoid receiving smaller pensions in retirement.

After ending pensions for new state workers in the late 1990s, Republican legislators are considering moving all newly hired teachers and local government workers to 401(k)-type plans and cutting municipal retiree health benefits. Just one other state, Alaska, has ended teacher pensions.

The governor, a former accountant and venture capitalist, has not outlined specific retirement proposals other than to be cool to shifting new teachers away from pensions because of the large upfront costs. But he warns that if nothing is done, retiree obligations – especially medical costs – will squeeze city budgets further and jeopardize basic services.

Influential conservatives point to Detroit, where thousands of people had their pensions cut by 4.5 percent in the bankruptcy. Annual cost-of-living increases were eliminated, and health coverage was replaced with a monthly stipend to buy insurance through the federal exchanges.

Options that may be considered in the Legislature include prohibiting retiree health benefits from being a subject of collective bargaining, capping how much local governments pay toward retiree medical insurance and eliminating traditional coverage in retirement for new workers in favor of contributions toward tax-deferred accounts, which is in effect for new teachers and state employees.

Critics say the state should not intervene in local labor contracts and describe the push as an attack on police and firefighters who risk their lives and typically must retire earlier than other workers.

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