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Pension changes poised to railroad public retirees

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

You’ve spent your entire life working hard. You’ve survived some rough times, but you’ve still been able to sock a few bucks away each week for when you retire.

Then you find out that the company changed your retirement plan and it doesn’t have the oomph you thought it did. In fact, it has no oomph at all.

You ask the bosses what happened, and you get told that they needed to change the rules to make sure the company’s profits remained high.

And if you don’t like it? You don’t think that this is the way someone should be treated after busting their tail for the company for so many years? Their answer: Tough.

That story isn’t so far-fetched for far too many retirees across this country these days. Their hard work has been sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed and the desire to placate the bottom line over everything else, particularly employee loyalty and dedication.

It’s happened in the private sector, and it’s about to happen in the public sector in Indiana.

Your state government is in the process of changing the way retirement accounts will be handled for thousands of state and local employees. If the plan comes to pass, a key chunk of their retirement benefits could be cut nearly in half.

Who would be affected? Not just a good number of state workers, but teachers and employees of cities, counties and townships across Indiana.

The change would affect annuity savings accounts. Workers have the chance to use ASAs to invest an extra portion of their own savings if they can scrape up a few extra dollars to set aside.

If the Indiana Public Retirement System’s Board of Trustees gets its way, control of this process would be given to the private sector. Experts agree this change will drastically reduce the rate of return on an investment.

There are some certainties about this proposal. With privatized control, retirees will lose peace of mind that they can reach out and touch someone in the Public Employees Retirement System who will securely handle payments on their annuities. Whom they talk to will be left to the wisdom of a private entity chosen to handle this process.

I also am quite certain that returns will be reduced even more by the fees the private entity chooses to charge for the privilege of handling your annuity account.

From the first time this idea surfaced, it has carried a distinct aroma. Efforts to slide it into the state budget during the final days of the 2013 session of the General Assembly ran afoul of House Speaker Brian Bosma, who said the issue needed to be fully aired in public.

To the trustees who oversee our public retirement system, having an issue “fully aired in public” meant deciding it in meetings that met the barest notification requirements. In short, the public was denied much of a chance to give its side of the story until the matter came up before myself and other members of the Pension Management Oversight Commission at our August meeting.

The public will have another chance to make its feelings known when PMOC meets again on Monday at the Statehouse.

I have no illusions that these efforts can be successful. One of the hazards of single-party control of state government is that voices of dissent often cannot be heard when the people in charge want to do something and have no interest in listening to other opinions.

What is being attempted here is wrong. It will cheat thousands of Hoosiers out of benefits they have earned fairly through dedicated service to the people of this state.

I know that many people will look at those who will be affected by this change and not care one bit. To them, many of these workers fit only one stereotype: three guys standing around a pothole watching a fourth fill it in.

But these are the people who fill in those potholes, and educate our children, and keep our streets safe. They are dedicated to those jobs, and they deserve a benefit that shows them they are entitled to some respect.

They certainly deserve it more than the trustees who are willing to dump their responsibilities into the laps of private interests who exhibit greater concern for their profits than the needs of their customers.

Who is really cheating the people of Indiana here?

David Niezgodski is a Democratic state representative from South Bend. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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