Special Delivery

Now, I’m not saying the House Democrats are ready to deliver a flaming bag of poo regarding public sector pensions. It’s just that all the signs point in that direction.The teachers’ and state employees’ unions should take care with any packages they find on the doorstep.

Because, apparently, the behind-closed-doors work has just about wrapped up. And suddenly, the House Government Operations Committee’s schedule is packed with pension-related hearings — leading up to the oft-promised public hearing on the as-yet-unreleased plan at the Traditional Newsdump Hour of Friday afternoon.

You know how rare it is for the Legislature to do anything substantive after 4:00 pm on a Friday? The only time it usually happens is during the last-ditch rush to adjournment.

And now, with a mere three days’ notice, the House Dems have scheduled a public hearing from 4:00 to 6:00 Friday. On a proposal that, as I might have already noted, hasn’t been made public as of this writing.

Friday’s dog-and-pony-show hearing will feature a parade of speakers who will each get three minutes to say their piece. Up to, presumably, the 120-minute time limit. That means, let me see, a total of 40 speaking slots. Forty! On an issue that touches the retirement security of thousands of Vermonters! You can register here; I suggest you do it fast.

It’s possible that the Dems have crafted a pension reform plan acceptable to all parties. But every sign points in the opposite direction. Secrecy? Check. Sudden effusion of hearings? Check. Little notice before a public hearing? Check. Public hearing scheduled for the Friday afternoon dead zone?

Check and double-check.

Did I mention there’s no actual bill yet? At least not one that’s publicly available.

The newly-revised House Gov Ops schedule for this week kicked off Tuesday afternoon with a hearing entitled “Pensions” featuring testimony from Chris Rupe, an analyst from the Joint Fiscal Office, the Legislature’s team of financial experts. (I didn’t notice this hearing until Tuesday evening, or I would have monitored it.) (Reminder that past committee hearings and floor sessions can be viewed on YouTube. Search for the relevant committee’s homepage.)

Rupe delivered a document to the committee entitled “Pensions – Potential Options,” which can be viewed on Gov Ops’ “Documents and Handouts” page for Tuesday, March 23.

The fact that this document is the only one on Gov Ops’ website argues that there may not be an actual bill yet. On the other hand, this could all be window dressing, who knows.

The Rupe document is a mere 16 pages long, including a cover page and a “Thank You” page at the end. As you might guess, the deets are pretty darn sketchy. It certainly doesn’t give away any hints about where lawmakers might be going.

As a reminder, the state employees’ pension fund is nowhere near sufficient to meet projected expenses. The teachers’ fund is in substantially worse shape. This is partly due to the state short-funding both pensions from the early 90s through the mid-2000s. Since then, the Legislature and three successive governors have tried to close the gap. But progress has been hamstrung by (1) investment returns coming in short of expectations and (2) retirees tending to live longer. Inconsiderate of them, I know.

Rupe’s document puts out three broad categories of possible resolution: “Options that Reduce Liabilities” (read: benefits cuts), “Options that Increase Assets” (read: more state money or higher pay-ins from workers, and “Current vs. Future Hires” (read: hold current employees harmless and stick it to future hires, as a way to sidestep the whole “broken promise” issue).

The document includes a lot of charts and graphs with accompanying bullet points. As a whole, it encapsulates the problem and lays out, in very broad terms, three types of solutions. The final bill, I’m sure, will turn out to be a blend of all three, in an effort to spread the pain around.

Rupe will return to House Gov Ops for more discussion Wednesday morning. The afternoon will feature testimony from union representatives. (Please note: Committee schedules are prone to last-minute changes, so keep an eye on Gov Ops’ agenda if you’re interested.)

On Thursday morning, Gov Ops is scheduled to hear from Treasurer Beth Pearce, who triggered this whole shemozzle with her pensions pivot earlier this year. Pearce, who had been a strong supporter of maintaining pension benefits, suddenly did a 180 and warned that drastic changes needed to be made. Also on the agenda: Representatives of the relevant pension boards plus representatives of the Vermont Pension Investment Committee and the Vermont Business Roundtable. You should expect a large quantity of tut-tutting and sad acknowledgments of the need to make unpleasant changes.

Thursday afternoon is scheduled for a House floor session. Gov Ops will pick up the pensions issue Friday morning with a session entitled “Proposed Pension Plan Design” and featuring mostly the union leaders. If you take that title at face value, it looks like Gov Ops may reveal its plan before then, but this would be the first opportunity for any testimony on the specifics.

The first half of Friday afternoon is again entitled “Proposed Pension Plan Design,” and features Pearce and the pension grandees from Thursday morning. And then there’s the public hearing at 4:00.

I have to say, this stinks. We may not see anything like a plan until Friday morning, and people are supposed to comment knowledgeably on Friday afternoon? That’s bullshit.

This bill is almost certainly on a fast track to passage. Legislative leaders seem bent on implementing a pension reform plan (you can put “reform” in air quotes if you like) during the current session. That means the House would have to ram it through almost immediately if the Senate is to have enough time to go through the whole process itself.

Remember earlier this week, when I wrote that now is the time for union leaders to flex all their political muscle? I wasn’t kidding.

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