WASHINGTON – A new form of multi-employer pension plan proposed by Rep. John Kline of Minnesota drew mixed reviews at a hearing Thursday.
Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, wants to let employers offer retirement plans that combine elements of defined benefit plans that pay fixed monthly amounts with a variable annuity approach that lets benefits vary based on employee contributions and investment results. On Sept. 7, Kline offered a discussion draft of a law to create the new program.
Witnesses at a subcommittee hearing generally understood the need for multi-employer plans to have options that keep them sustainable at a time when 328 of the nation’s 1,300 defined benefit plans are less than 60 percent funded and their current retirees face the possibility of big cuts in their monthly checks.
But the new composite plans will not be available to plans in the desperate straits like the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, which has announced cuts to current retirees failing a federal bailout.
Furthermore, some witnesses worried about “siphoning” money away from plans that are at risk of failing to help create composite plans.
“It is unconscionable to tell [retirees] now that they are older, unable to work and possibly in poor health, that they will be forced into poverty or a vastly reduced standard of living,” David Certner, AARP’s legislative director testified. “The funding rules must remain adequate to fully fund existing plans for retirees and near-retirees. We should not reduce funding for existing underfunded pension plans in order to fund contributions to start the newly proposed composite plan.”
Certner also expressed concern at giving pension trustees the power to reduce benefits to current retirees in composite plans.
Supporters of the composite plans said long-term funding requirements will minimize the risk to retirees. They said that composite plans are an alternative designed to keep pensions alive and without them more plans will end up in situations like Central States.
“We believe this is an important provision and will preserve some defined benefit plans that might otherwise have failed due to an eroding contribution base,” Rick Terven of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry told the hearing.
Jeff Green, the part owner of several construction companies that employ Building Trades Union members and a trustee of several multi-employer funds, stressed the need for flexibility for employers if pension plans are to continue.
Speaking of one pension plan with which he is associated, Green explained that “recent years of below expected investment returns resulted in the plan actuaries determining that the unfunded vested benefits increased from $14 million to $30 million, a $16 million liability.” Raising current employees’ contributions to make up for that kind of shortfall would be difficult if not impossible.
“Legislation that empowers a plan’s trustees to utilize all approaches to develop and implement their best solution are needed,” Green said.
Determining the best approach was a matter of debate. As the hearing took place, a coalition that included the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the National Retirees Legislative Network, the Pension Rights Center and the United Steelworkers sent a letter to all members of Congress expressing strong opposition to Kline’s discussion draft.
How to incorporate changes in the discussion draft was another point of contention. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., criticized the speed with which the new law might be “forced” into the pension system. He warned that because of the upcoming election recess that the law might end up folded into an omnibus budget bill the way the Multi-employer Pension Reform Act was in 2014. Kline and former Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., co-sponsored the 2014 bill, which allowed failing defined benefit plans to cut benefits to current retirees in order to survive. Because it was folded into the budget and never voted on separately, it attracted criticism.