Thursday, November 12, 2009

UPEA Statement to Retirement and Independent Entities Committee

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Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee – thank you for allowing me an opportunity to address you on this vital and sensitive topic. My name is Sheri Watters. I have been a public employee for 24 years. I currently hold several positions with the Utah Public Employee’s Association and serve as the Vice-Chair of the Retirement Membership Council. Today I am representing the view points of UPEA.

As most of you are aware, the genesis of today’s retirement system had root in 1915 when the Public Teacher’s system was authorized by this body. In the 1940’s state employees and others were authorized to be part of an expanded system. On March 8, 1967, over 40 years ago, the Legislature passed SB 205, “Public Employees Retirement System” thus consolidating various pension systems and allowing all state and local government employees and educators to be eligible for retirement coverage. Currently there are over 181,000 members of the retirement system, this encompasses active, retired, and terminated vested employees…including teachers, janitors, cops, firefighters, truck drivers, computer techs, legislators, therapists, and the list goes on and on.

Public pension systems across the country are experiencing stress. Utah is not alone in this dilemma. In an article about the plight of public employee pension systems, officials in Ohio stated it would take until “infinity” to get the investments back on track. Other systems such as California and West Virginia are merely a train wreck waiting to happen. Luckily, Utah has continued to be well managed by level-headed investors and by legislators being mindful of this important benefit. Our system is currently 86% funded. This number has fluctuated over the years. In 2000 the fund was at 103% funded but yet in 1990 it was as low as 74.6%. I believe that economic stability will return and the fund will recover based on historical data. Will there be another downturn? Will there be a catastrophic event in the Salt Lake area? Not even the actuaries can predict these types of unknowns.

Surveys and task forces across the country continue to show that a defined benefit program is the retirement option of choice. There are numerous reasons why. One reason is for attracting and retaining qualified and dedicated employees. We know that high turnover rates mean higher training costs. A DB plan allows the state to have a degree of control on who leaves employment and when. It is also important to note that the vast majority of Utah citizen retirees remain in the state and contribute an important sum to the state economy as well as continue to pay taxes in Utah.

State DHRM in its latest survey noted that “both health insurance and the retirement plan were rated as very important for retention – on a scale of 1 to 3 the state retirement plan was rated with an importance of 2.75 and the health plan as 2.83.” In addition, the survey showed the importance of the retirement plan for retention is high across all ages and years of service groups, which may indicate that even the younger groups do have an appreciation for the current plan.

The Utah Public Employee’s Association is cognizant of the difficult issues facing the legislature during this upcoming session…the budget, education, transportation, taxes, just to name a few. UPEA also recognizes that there are thousands of public employees across the state who have devoted their lives and careers to public service. We will continue to oppose any legislation that may negatively impact the current retirement system or reduce an employee’s take home pay to maintain these benefits. We are also highly concerned about changes which could cause an erosion of the merit system. This is our primary goal. We believe that a comprehensive study should be conducted to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of adjustments to the system to include changes for those who have retired and rehired and those who are not yet vested or not yet hired. Making structural changes to the current pension system without extensive research and cost analysis is not, in my opinion, in the best interests of all stakeholders.

As conscientious taxpayers/citizens of the State of Utah we know that the Utah Retirement System is a well-managed program designed and refined over many years to retain and attract quality individuals to aid in workforce stability and promote orderly turnover.

We believe that when the Utah Retirement System was established, legislators were concerned with looking at the long-range picture. We owe it to those individuals who have gone before us, those currently in the workforce and those who will replace us in the future to maintain a pension system founded on sound business principles, fiscal responsibility and fair market value that will continue to help Utah maintain its reputation for being a well-managed state, to protect our AAA bond rating and to continue to educate our children and grandchildren with qualified and competent teachers. We hope that you will see fit to choose a wise course of action as changes to the system today will ultimately affect individuals through the next decade and beyond. Time is not our enemy.

Thank you.

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