Northeast Miss. appointees believe in retirement system

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Northeast Mississippians on a committee studying the state public employee retirement program say the system will meet its obligations.
One of those committee members, Lee County Chancery Clerk Bill Benson, who is chairman of the Public Employees Retirement System Board of Trustees, admitted the system has some problems “that will take some time to work through,” but said he “disagreed with discussions that it (system) is unsustainable.”
Other Northeast Mississippians appointed to the committee this week by Gov. Haley Barbour are Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, and Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona. Two other legislators are on the commission. The legislators will be non-voting members.
Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel will chair the commission.
“I appreciate the governor’s appointment, particularly because we have talked about the retirement system, and he knows I do not share all of his views on the system,” Bryan said.
Bryan added, “In general terms, we have a sound system. … We need to continue the system much the same as it is. Every system needs modification from time to time. But the core, basic concept is valid, and we need to retain that.”
In his news release announcing the commission, Barbour said, “The current funding path for Mississippi’s pension system relies too heavily on increased contributions from taxpayers. Large benefit increases adopted in the 1990s and early 2000s coupled with the impact of the economic downturn have created a financially unsustainable system.”
The system is funded at about 65 percent. Pat Robertson, executive director of PERS, said ideally it should be funded at 80 percent. Over a long period of time, the state would need to correct the funding discrepancy by increasing the contribution level, garnering consistent earnings of at least 8 percent for several years or by reducing benefits.
But Benson said, “There is no danger of the system shutting down or being bankrupt.”
The system currently has assets of more than $20 billion.
Barbour has charged the commission with analyzing the system’s financial, structural and funding mechanisms, including “the legality of modifying the benefit structure for current and future state employees.”
In recent years, the PERS Board, the Legislature and Barbour have struggled with how to fund the system, which consists of about 167,000 state, city and county employees, including school district personnel.
The commission is supposed to report to the governor and Legislature by Nov. 15. Any recommendations would have to be approved by the Legislature for them to take effect.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com