JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — "Leave our money alone!"
That statement by Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton, sums up Democrats' reaction to proposals to freeze cost-of-living increases for retired public employees.
A group of Democrats at a news conference Tuesday attacked proposal, which Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, has said she's considering introducing as a bill. Collins has also said she'd like to increase the size of the board of the Public Employees Retirement System, which now has 10 members, by adding appointees not chosen by employees. She also wants to wipe out the special retirement benefit for lawmakers.
Collins told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal last week (http://bit.ly/X3ny1G ) that she was developing a proposal to freeze retirees' annual 3 percent cost-of-living increase for three years. Collins said she would also propose giving the governor and lieutenant governor three additional appointments each to the PERS board. Currently, eight members are elected by various groups of public employees and retirees. The governor has one appointee and the state treasurer also serves.
The pension system, which covers state employees, public school teachers, university workers and most city and county employees, has $21 billion in assets. But accountants say that it only has 58 percent of the funds needed to pay for current and future benefits. In reaction, the board has increased the share of payroll that agencies must contribute to 15.75 percent.
That's a burden on government agencies, especially those that don't get money from the Legislature to pay for the increase. Some people have suggested that the system needs to be re-examined because of the burden.
Collins' proposal had not been introduced as legislation as of Tuesday. She could not immediately be reached for comment. PERS Executive Director Pat Robertson said the system's board doesn't have a position on Collins' proposals.
Democrats, though, were gleeful in their opposition, believing that loud advocacy for public employees would aid the minority party.
"My dear friend and new senator Nancy Collins has jumped into a hornets' nest, that's what she's done," said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. "The members of the House say 'No, no, no,' to changing benefits."
Several Democrats pointed to a recent report from the Legislature's Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review that suggested any cuts to benefits for current employees or retirees would be illegal.
"I think certainly you'd have some legal issues," said House Minority Leader Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto.
Both Moak and Holland said they would only consider changes requested by the PERS board.
"When the board brings us a recommendation, I promise you we'll have dialogue, but otherwise we're not interested in any changes in the system," Holland said.