Democrats and advocates were sounding the alarm over a last-minute proposal in the state budget that would change the makeup of the committee overseeing Wisconsin’s retirement system.
But in another GOP retreat, a Senate amendment package -- one that also eliminates a broadly criticized assault on the state's open records law -- did away with the retirement system plan.
The proposal, passed by the legislative budget committee in the so-called Motion 999 amendments, would have dismantled an oversight system in place since 1947. It would remove four non-legislative members from the Joint Survey Committee on Retirement Systems — a representative from the attorney general, a public member, a representative from the commissioner of insurance and the secretary of the Employee Trust Funds — and leave the committee made up solely of lawmakers, with the ruling party having a majority proportional to other legislative standing committees.
“These changes create in the very least uncertainty for participants in the system,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, a member of both the legislative budget committee and the Survey Committee on Retirement Systems. “I don’t know why these changes were added to the 999 and I have heard from several constituents that want to know who requested they be added. We have one of the strongest public retirement systems in the country, why would we ever want to mess with that?”
“It removes the legal, actuarial, technical and “institutional memory” of other state agencies including the retirement system operators. It eliminates the input from the governor's office through the appointment of a private citizen,” said Phil Anderson, a retired state employee, in a press release from the group POWRS (Protect Our WRS).
Buzz Davis, a former state employee and activist, said the move will allow Republicans to privatize the retirement funds, current administered by the Department of Employee Trust Funds.
“If done, Wall Street will make billions in fees and control the investments to divert retirement fund monies into their buddies' businesses,” he said. “Governments could decrease their share of funding of public pension systems and retirees would get smaller pensions.”
State Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, a member of the budget committee, called the Republican proposal, which still has to pass through the Legislature, “damaging.”
Noting that all changes to the retirement system have to pass through the committee, she said the proposal “looks to be a first attempt for them to control any changes to WRS.”
Like other proposals in Motion 999, the source of the proposal has not been divulged. Another proposal in the motion that would have gutted the state’s open records law was abandoned after wide, bipartisan condemnation.
The Wisconsin Retirement System, with nearly 600,000 participants, including 184,000 annuitants, is considered one of the nation’s best-run public employee retirement funds and one of the few that are fully funded.
According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper from earlier this year, the composition of the Joint Survey Committee on Retirement Systems was meant to protect retirees from ill-advised changes.
“Because of the complexity and potential costs to public employers of any proposed change in WRS law, a diverse JSCRS membership was established as a safeguard to ensure that complex pension legislation could receive adequate review,” reads the paper.
State Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, a member of the Joint Survey Committee on Retirement Systems, said the proposal would “take the public expertise out of the process.”
We have one of the best-funded and most efficiently run retirement systems in the country,” he said. “That is in no small part due to the fact that we’ve had systems in place like this … I’m not exactly sure why Republicans want to change something that’s working so well.”
Republicans have proposed changes to the system in the past. In 2013, then state Rep. Duey Stroebel, a former co-chair of the retirement systems committee, authored a bill that would have changed the way earning are calculated by averaging the worker’s five highest annual earnings periods, as opposed to the current benchmark of three highest. The proposal was panned by retiree groups and Democrats.
Stoebel, now a state Senator, didn’t return a message for comment.
“The senator is reviewing the proposal,” said a staffer from Stroebel’s office. “He would not have any comment at this time.”
State Sen. Frank Lasee, R-De Pere, and state Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, the current co-chairs of the committee, didn’t return messages seeking comment.