Lawmakers Considering Ideas To Help Poor Retirees
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers said Tuesday they are trying to find ways to surmount the state's ongoing budget woes and boost pension payments to retired state workers and teachers, thousands of whom receive benefits below the poverty level.
"We can't let our senior retirees descend into poverty. We'd also like them to maintain their purchasing power," said Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee, which has planned several hearings to talk about cost of living adjustments for retirees.
Lawmakers are hoping to reach a consensus on legislation that could pay more to retired public school workers and state employees who rely on state pensions that haven't been adjusted for inflation in several years.
Guillory warned, however, that extra money for retirees could be a long way off. For example, he said an across-the-board 3 percent increase for members of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System and the Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana would cost a hefty $500 million.
"This meeting should not raise any kind of false hope that any type of COLA benefit is imminent. Today, no COLA bill is on the horizon," he said.
Louisiana has faced four years of repeated budget cuts to state programs and services. The nation's ongoing economic woes have taken a toll on the state retirement systems, boosting their outstanding debt. More financial problems loom for the state, raising questions about where money could be found for a pension payment increase.
But senators also said they don't want to leave people who gave years of their lives to public service struggling to survive in retirement.
More than 26,000 former public school teachers, employees and other retirees in TRSL receive pension benefits at or below the poverty level of $15,130 for a family of two. That's 39 percent of all the system's retirees, according to data provided by Maureen Westgard, director of TRSL.
Unless they worked other jobs outside of the state or local school systems or had a second career, those retirees don't get a Social Security check. Public school teachers and state employees in Louisiana don't pay into the federal Social Security system.
Senators suggested carving out certain classes of retirees to receive inflationary increases in their pension payments, maybe based on years of service, age or income level.
Guillory said lawmakers, who are doing a widespread review of Louisiana's tax breaks, might consider eliminating some of those exemptions and credits and dedicating the savings to the state retirement systems.
"We're out beating the bushes and trying to find some funding stream that can be dedicated solely to pensions and COLAs. It's a thorny problem," he said.
Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, suggested lawmakers might consider adding an extra retirement check for retirees each year, rather than a percentage increase, because it would be cheaper and could be paid for upfront.
Frank Jobert, executive director of the Retired State Employees Association of Louisiana, said that extra check could be a significant help for retirees living on a tight budget.
"They could maybe go out and buy an appliance or pay an outstanding bill," he said.