Teacher's union set for pension fight

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008

The union representing teachers and school support staff said Thursday it is gearing up to fight another round over pensions, an issue some lawmakers said they consider a "done deal."

Bill Bjork, president of the National Education Association-Alaska, said a major priority of his 13,000-member group this legislative session would be to change the state's pension plan for teachers and public employees. The NEA-Alaska wants its newest members to have the option of having a set amount of money regularly when they retire, or a defined benefits plan, instead of what's currently available for new employees - having their pensions work like individual 401k plans that they can take with them if they change jobs.

Bjork said the current system, called a defined contributions plan, is too unpredictable and can leave retired teachers and other public employees with empty pockets in their old age.

"We have the worst pension system in the United States," Bjork said. "It's just really poor public policy."

Bjork said a solid plan was needed because Alaska's teachers are not part of the Social Security system and have no federal safety net if their state retirement plan takes a dive. He added that the new system makes it hard for Alaska to recruit and retain teachers and support staff because employees can take their retirement plans with them when they leave the state.

The NEA-Alaska and several other unions have backed a bill by Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, which would give new public employees the choice between defined benefits or defined contributions.

But even the bill's sponsor said its prospects aren't bright. Democrats, the traditional allies of public employee unions, are in the overall minority at the Capitol.

And Elton said there's also an "institutional reluctance" to revisit the pension debate. Lawmakers made the switch to a defined contribution plan in 2005 after a lengthy and contentious debate. Supporters of the measure, including former Gov. Frank Murkowski, said it would help to "stop the bleeding" of the state retirement system, which at the time was about $5 billion in the hole.

"(They) feel like they addressed the issue, and they don't want it to come back," Elton said.

Indeed, when told of the NEA-Alaska's plan to make changes in the pension plan a legislative priority, Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said, "I wish 'em no luck whatsoever."

Kelly called the defined contributions system a "Cadillac plan" and said the idea that it was making it harder to recruit teachers and other public jobs was "pure rubbish."

"We've changed to defined contributions plan," Kelly said. "It's a done deal."

Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan said it was still too early to tell if the defined contributions plan was making it harder to recruit and retain teachers, but said the district was still "concerned" that the new system makes it more attractive for teachers to jump ship.

"There were incentives in the (old) program to keep teachers in the system," Cowan said.

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