House passes plan to preserve state employee pensions

Representative Keith Regier (R-Kalispell)

Representative Keith Regier (R-Kalispell)

The House of Representatives has decided to move forward with a plan to fix the state’s ailing pension systems, a plan brought forward by Governor Steve Bullock.

As we’ve reported, the  state’s biggest retirement systems are on pace to be more than $4 billion in debt over the next 30 years if their funding mechanism isn’t changed.

The Governor’s plan is split into two bills which separately address the state’s two largest systems, the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) and Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). Those plans require both employers and employees put in more money toward the pensions. They would also take more money from state trust lands. The House approved both by wide margins Thursday, 60-39 for the TRS plan and 64-35 for the PERS plan.

“I think most citizens of Montana are gonna see that we’re just trying to bail out a failed plan,” said Representative Keith Regier (R-Kalispell). He sponsored another bill which became the top alternative to the Governor’s plan. It would have moved all new hires over to defined contribution plans, which are similar to 401(K) plans used often in the private sector. Making that shift would have cost the state more money, but Regier argues only for the short term. Under his plan, the state could eventually transition out of the pension program. The state would contribute money to the defined contribution plans of the employees, but the stability of those plans would be based on the whims of the stock market.
“It comes down to who should have the risk for somebody’s retirement,” he said, meaning the individual employees with the defined contribution plans or the state with the current pension system.
Representative Tom Woods (D-Bozeman)

Representative Tom Woods (D-Bozeman)

Representative Tom Woods (D-Bozeman) sponsored the Governor’s plan to fix the Teachers Retirement System. He says House members realized it was the best way to move forward, “that it’s more expensive to close defined benefit plans than to fix them.” He believes the two bills have cleared their biggest hurdles as they move over to the Senate.

“I believe these bills will pass,” said Eric Feaver, President of the state’s largest public employee union, the MEA-MFT. “This is the session to do it, we have the money to do it, we have the commitment.” Feaver is a strong supporter of the pension fix bills even though he believes parts of the measures are unconstitutional. While the Governor’s pension bills were in a joint-select committee responsible for pensions, lawmakers added amendments which would lower the guaranteed cost-of-living adjustment built into the plans of current employees. Legislative legal staff have warned this could be a breach of contract.
“That’s a problem,” Feaver said. He says he will lobby to try to remove those amendments in the Senate or if the bill makes it to Governor Bullock’s desk. If they make it all the way through the process, he believes he and several other plaintiffs could mount a successful lawsuit to strip them.
“The bills need to pass anyway,” he said.
Lawmakers in favor of the 401(K) retirement plan shift are not giving up. On Wednesday, Senator Dee Brown introduced a bill which, if passed, would put the proposal before the voters.
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Unborn child protection bill prompts early Session emotion

Representative Keith Regier (R-Kalispell) presents his bill to create a criminal offense involving the death of an unborn child to the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday

Representative Keith Regier (R-Kalispell) presents his bill to create a criminal offense involving the death of an unborn child to the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday

The passionate emotions tied up within one of the nation’s most divisive social issues briefly rose to the surface during a Tuesday morning meeting of the House Judiciary Committee.

It was during the hearing of a bill the sponsor says is not supposed to be about abortion, rather the safety of unborn children from ‘wanted pregnancies.’ Yet the testimony spent a good deal of time talking about the former.

“The focus lies entirely with inserting abortion rhetoric into the state criminal code,” said Kim Leighton of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana regarding House Bill 104.

Bill sponsor Representative Keith Regier (R-Kalispell) says his bill does not stray into the abortion issue, specifically allowing exceptions such as, “emergency medical care” and “lawful medical procedures…with the consent of the pregnant woman.”

“This bill could be called the pregnant woman protection act,” Regier said, noting that under Montana law when a pregnant woman is killed, it is officially only considered one death.

Proponents said 36 other states have similar laws, many of which have been challenged  up to the US Supreme Court, which has not found them in conflict with key pro-choice decisions such as Roe v. Wade.

The discussion on the bill was civil, with the emotion mentioned at the top of this post coming near the end of the committee’s questions of those who had provided comment.

Lynsey Bourke from Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic (a health facility that does provide abortion services) testified the bill infringes on Montana’s right to privacy.

First-term Representative Clayton Fiscus (R-Billings) repeatedly asked Bourke if she thought the other states that passed similar legislation were wrong to do so, and in a final follow-up asked “You’re saying this is wrong, conceptually, but there’s no factual evidence this is wrong?”

His question was objected to as ‘badgering the witness.’ Committee Chair Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel) upheld the objection.

“Let’s try to keep our questions to information gathering for this committee,” Kerns said. “The opinions of people out in the public will be different than ours. We can’t always confront everybody about it.”

No action was taken on the bill.