Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, did her best Tuesday to stem confusion and fears around the state’s ongoing pension problem.
“I just want us to — as much as we can — try to calm the fears out there,” Balint said, referring to the dozens of emails and phone calls constituents have sent to members of the Senate in recent weeks.
The pension fund has become a top issue for the Legislature this session after Treasurer Beth Pearce released a report in January recommending a reduction in pension benefits for teachers and state employees, following a new analysis that projects the system’s unfunded liability growing by about $600 million.
In that report, Pearce outlined a series of potential changes that would require active employees to contribute more and take a lower payout. Her recommendations would not impact retirees currently receiving benefits, but the proposal reduces cost-of-living increases for state employees and eliminates them altogether for teachers.
Under the plan, employees would contribute more and wait longer to draw down benefits. And the salary amount used to calculate a retiree’s benefit would be lower.
“It’s a very unsettling time and everything that we can do to try to — as much as we can — bring the anxiety level down and let people know: we’re doing due diligence, the recommendations from the Treasurer are recommendations, it’s the beginning of a conversation,” Balint said Tuesday.
In many ways this is a first big test for Balint in her role as pro tem. Coming into the leadership position, she was praised for her ability to clearly communicate — not just with fellow senators, but also the public. Now it’s time to see how she’ll use that strength in practice.
Balint has already been making sure that a recent briefing on the pension issue is available for all senators to use as a resource for discussing the issue with constituents.
But there has also been a communication breakdown.
On Friday, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, had been told the House would take a first crack at solving the pension question. White was under the impression there was an agreement with the stakeholders close at hand.
But that was not entirely accurate. The Vermont State Employees Association and others told White her intel was wrong.
On Tuesday, Balint apologized to White and confirmed that the House would tackle the pension fund first.
“I felt like I did not do a great job last week in finding enough time to really connect with her about which chamber was going to go first,” Balint said.
That said, the Senate should not be ready to simply “rubber stamp” the lower chamber’s work, Balint told White, potentially setting up another challenge for the pro tem: tough negotiations with House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, over a major policy issue.
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