• Published 09/18/2016

It is not uncommon to hear our elected officials heap praise onto the first responders.  Of course this is always more common around September 11th and other major events where a police officer or fire fighter has sacrificed his or her life trying to save someone else.  Of course the praise fades quickly when the politicians see traction to be gained by attacking those same folks.  It is sort of like a seesaw.  Praise one day and vitriolic hate the next.

We understand what this is all about.  The sad fact is they don’t really care one way or the other.  What they care about is their own self.  The examples of this behavior are so numerous that I need not enumerate further – just pick up the newspaper.

Of course other professions have been treated in similar fashion.  Teachers are a good example.  The legislators praise teachers and promise to fully fund education.  Of course they don’t and it is taking a lawsuit and the State Supreme Court to force the legislators to keep that promise – and they have yet to do so.

In fact the Teachers have been given the short end of the stick so many times that one wonders why they keep electing the same union leaders.  Everyone touts the claim that the Teachers’ union is one of the most powerful in the State, but the teachers go for years without a raise and their pension plan is grossly underfunded.  Teachers do not even get a COLA for their pension thus leaving a retired teacher to struggle to get by on less buying power each year.

Prior to enactment of the Pension Funding Reform Act in 1989, contributions to the TRS Plan 1 were made on an ad hoc basis. For the nine biennia (18 years) extending from 1973 through 1991, the full funding requirements of PERS, TRS, and LEOFF were satisfied by the legislature only once. Actual contributions ranged from a low of 60 percent of the required amount in 1973-75 to a high of 95 percent in 1979-81.

After passage of the Pension Funding Reform Act, the legislature embarked upon a 12-year period (1991-2003) of funding 100 percent of the actuarially required contributions. However, in the 2001-2003 and the 2003-2005 biennia the legislature again created a gap between the actuarially required contributions and the amounts actually appropriated for expenditure, funding the retirement systems at the 70 percent level for 2003-2005.

One of the major concerns of LEOFF 1 members about the proposed TRS 1/LEOFF 1 merger is the failure of the legislature to properly fund the TRS 1 pension plan.  In fact, the under-funding has been so bad that there is no reason to expect the legislature will address these issues in the future.  This would condemn LEOFF 1 to a chronically underfunded pension and subject it to the threat of a move to lower or alter benefits.

Of course the legislature “promises” that no benefits would change and that all future benefits would be protected.  Given the recent court actions in California and New Jersey it is clear that members can take little comfort in these promises.

As a tier within the TRS 1 system, LEOFF 1 members would have no way to effectively lobby for their own interests and protection.  Changing or altering benefits within the system would be extremely difficult when we would be asking for changes that would correct or improve benefits.  A good example is the latest law passed in the last session that re-opened the sign up window for members to include a post retirement spouse as a survivor.  This was a no-cost improvement and it took three sessions of intense lobbying to get it passed.

So where is the treachery?  It rests in the legislature’s failure to attend to their basic responsibilities while promising grand solutions.  Their failure to honor the terms of the Pension Funding Reform Act is just another example of their failed promises.

We have been promised by individual legislators and staff members that we would be alerted when legislation is considered that might impact our pension plan.  Each time something like this comes up they all say, “This is the first I have heard of it.”

Now we have SB 6668. A LEOFF I merger bill, was introduced early Wednesday morning (February 24, 2016).  The bill if passed, would have merged the LEOFF I retirement system with Teachers (TERS I) retirement system.

Of course no one knew anything about it before February 24th and we were expected to believe that a couple of senators scribbled it out on a cocktail napkin on the 23rd.  In the spirit of good stakeholder relations we were invited to meet with the Senate Ways and Means Committee staff on March 1st at 10 AM.   The staff lawyer explained the bill and argued how it was all legal.  (In total contradiction to what our own lawyers were advising.)

Then we were advised that a hearing had been scheduled for March 2nd at 8:00 AM. Of course their goal was to slide this bill through as a budget bill with little fanfare.  Much to their surprise we overfilled the hearing room with only 20 hours of notice.

Now, after a difficult fight, that bill is dead but scheduled to be resurrected in the next session.  We are studying it and we are finding out a bit more about the back room shenanigans surrounding this bill.

It was hardly developed on a cocktail napkin.  In June of 2013 (June 13, 2013) a law firm that advises the state on tax issues wrote to Aaron Gutierrez of the State Actuary’s office discussing SB2806.3/13 3rd Draft.  This was a legal review of a LEOFF 1/TRS 1 merger proposal already in its third draft stage by March 2013.

Of course we had been assured that no merger was being considered.  I guess they meant to say that no merger plan was being put forward as a bill.  We can’t find out who was lying to us, but we do know that the State Actuary provides services to the Ways and Means committee as well as the Select Committee on Pension Policy.  Senators that sit on both committees were well aware of our interest and concern and yet had assured us there was no merger plan on the horizon.  Also, we do recognize that staff is limited as to what they can say, but they can craft an answer that does not reveal secret knowledge without claiming no knowledge.  A simple “I can’t discuss that.” would suffice.

Then on April 23, 2015 there was another Ice Miller review of the same bill with a different number.  Same story:  No plans for a merger bill.  Then in February 2016 SB 6668 was introduced.  And, it was introduced in a way designed to suppress our lobbying response.  But, nobody knew anything about a merger bill.

That proposed bill has lots of problems and generated a lot of questions.  Over 1,400 surveys were submitted and thousands of questions asked during the review process.  As of September 18, 2016 no questions have been answered.

For example one of the more common questions is how was the $5,000 payout to beneficiaries determined?  A simple question but no one knows the answer.  We see it as a bribe and we are pretty convinced that someone knows because someone wrote it into the bill. It would seem to be a pretty simple task to have the Actuary’s office call the sponsors and ask them to answer the question.  But, no one knows and we are supposed to believe it.

I titled this blog “Treachery” so I guess I should recap the thrust of my argument.  It is treachery because the legislature makes promises and then does not keep the promises.  It is treachery because the legislature praises the teachers, police officers and fire fighters and then turns their back on them.  It is treachery because we are promised information but none is forthcoming.  It is treachery because the legislators choose to operate in back rooms to our disadvantage and then try to push through the fruits of that dark project.

And, one last bit.  Our complaints about being left out of the process prompted the establishment of the so called Roundtable Meetings.  Our complaints generated a survey process that would provide us with answers to our questions and concerns.   Our complaints generated the promise that we would be involved in the development of a report to the legislature on SB6668.

None of those things have happened.  Yes, we have been able to submit our questions, but we have received no answers.  Participation and discussion require the exchange of ideas and positions.  That has not happened.  The two so called Roundtable Meeting were not attended by the SCPP committee members or the bill sponsors.

The bottom line, I believe, is that we will be fighting this merger concept in the next session of the legislature.  We will need to be organized and focused to convince the legislators that the merger is a bad idea that will have serious and unintended consequences.

If we can do that, we will need to sharpen our sticks or order some silver bullets as we will expect this creature to rise of the dead every session.

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