BOBBY HARRISON: Facts at odds with some of Barbour’s PERS assertions

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour and other Republicans have criticized the media for what they say is mischaracterizing their plans for the Public Employees Retirement System.
Barbour, a two-term Republican who is finishing his final months in office, has established a study commission to look at the system that provides retirement benefits for state employees; local government workers, including police officers and firefighters; public school personnel, including teachers; and university and community college faculty. In total, almost 375,000 current and former public employees have some financial stake in the system.
In a commentary sent to the state media last week, Barbour wrote, “These attacks are aimed at politicizing a well-guided study commission and waging a fear-mongering campaign to scare state employees and retirees into voting Democrat during the 2011 legislative elections.”
Barbour said it was “silly” for some to speculate that there will be an effort “to take away” the cost of living adjustment retirees receive. Under state law, retirees receive an annual 3 percent cost of living adjustment that many opt to receive as “a 13th check.”
The governor failed to mention that at a public hearing attended by scores of public employees and retirees, Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel, whom Barbour appointed to chair the commission, said everything must be on the table for consideration, including the 13th check.
The media apparently sensationalized the story by reporting what the chairman said.
Various actions, not the media, are probably responsible for causing concerns among public retirees and employees.
For instance:
* Former state Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Biloxi, now a member of the U.S. Congress, introduced legislation to cut the amount of the cost of living increase.
* Senate Appropriations Chair Doug Davis, R-Hernando, an appointee of Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the Republican nominee to replace Barbour, tried to pass legislation designed to keep retirees from receiving their benefits if the system’s governing board raised the amount the governmental entities contributed to the system. Davis said he was only trying to bring attention to issues surrounding the retirement system.
* And perhaps most importantly, Barbour in his fiscal year 2011 budget proposal, wrote, “To ensure pension sustainability consideration should be given to modifying the current benefit structure, including accrual rates and automatic cost-of-living adjustments, for current and prospective state employees.”
Barbour’s remarks were not some off-the-cuff comments, as it appears Schloegel makes, but were included in probably the most important document the government releases each year.
No doubt, there are issues surrounding the retirement system. Differences exists among very smart people on the scope of changes needed to ensure its sustainability.
Many point out that significant changes have been made to public employee retirement plans in several states. But many also fail to mention that significant changes, including increasing the employees contribution rate from 7.25 percent to 9 percent of their paycheck, also have been made to the Mississippi system in recent years.
Republican politicians in some other states have led the effort to switch from a guaranteed retirement plan to what is known as a defined contribution plan where the benefits are based on investment earnings. Many private companies have done that.
By the way, Schloegel also has talked about the positives of a defined contribution plan.
Is that what Mississippi needs? Is changing the cost of living adjustment needed?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But to criticize the media for covering the issues or even to question the sincerity of public employees who might be concerned about possible changes that could affect their retirement years could seem a little suspicious itself.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau reporter. Contact him at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.