OUR OPINION: Make PERS report before Nov. 8 vote

By NEMS Daily Journal

Gov. Barbour’s special commission to study and make recommendations, as needed, to strengthen the Public Employees Retirement System faces a Nov. 15 deadline to submit its conclusions, but in fairness to retired Mississippians and members of the PERS system, the report should be issued well before the Nov. 8 general election.
Regardless of what commission members and the governor may hope about deflecting political impact, the impact is building among thousands of Mississippians who fear that benefits and annual cost-of-living adjustments might be reduced or, in some cases, eliminated.
The Legislature declined to form a study commission, perhaps knowing that in an election year anything resembling changes in retirement plans raises red flags.
The governor, who leaves office in January, has no direct political stake in the rebound from the report, but those running for the Legislature do, and they need to be confronted with the commission’s findings as matters of proposed policy before the election.
Timely release would require that they take a position, and it would offer a pre-session opportunity for beneficiaries and participants of PERS to let their views be known, plus all other voters.
Debating the merits of whatever issues the commission may recommend and raise is no more political in the context of a campaign than in the chambers and on the floor of a sharply partisan Legislature.
The issues are fully relevant to campaign debate because at the core are the incomes of 79,000 Mississippi retirees, most of whom live in our state; the retirement possibilities of an additional 164,896 employees paying into the system; and all state taxpayers who help foot the bill.
In any case, nothing can be done with the commission’s recommendations until the Legislature convenes, but the impact of changing, reforming tinkering with a fund with $20.8 billion in assets should be fully aired well in advance.
Changes arguably may be necessary, and the benefit levels may be altered. That happens in the private sector; it can happen in the public sector.
As PERS Executive Director Pat Robertson said, “Any discussion surrounding the benefits promised to individuals can cause anxiety and concern, especially when a resulting action may affect their financial future.”
However, sometimes financial soundness requires changes.
Some already have been made in the Mississippi system like raising the minimum years of service and the monthly contribution of employees.
The voters, especially the direct stakeholders, need the opportunity to ask about positions while candidates are seeking office.
Editor’s note: Fred Ingellis’ letter in Sunday’s edition cited him as a former national commander of the American Legion. He was a national vice commander. We regret the error.