State employees plead for retirement changes

Testimony: Loss of traditional pensions will hurt employee retention

Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Public employees who want the state to return to a traditional pension plan told concerned legislators Monday that Alaska will face a troubled future as it begins to lose its trained workforce.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

State Trooper Jimmy Lindberg with the Alaska Bureau of Investigation said he's received some of the finest training in the country as a trooper, but he'll eventually leave for a place with better retirement security.

"At this point I have no incentive to stick around," he said.

Lindberg addressed an informal panel of legislators interested in returning to a traditional defined-benefit plan, instead of the 401(k)-style contribution plan they now have. Under than plan, employees are responsible for managing their own retirement contributions instead of the state.

Lindberg said many of his fellow troopers drew the same conclusions as him.

"There are going to be a lot of guys who are going to be pulling out," he said. "There's going to be a huge void in experienced troopers."

Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau, helped organize the unofficial hearing, hoping to move stalled legislation that would return a defined benefit plan.

Legislators who fought bitter battles over Senate Bill 141 several years ago - when the new Tier IV plan for the Public Employees Retirement System and the Tier III plan for the Teachers Retirement System were implemented - are not interested in reopening the divisive issue.

"It was a horrible fight, and those who were there say they still have the battle scars," Munoz said.

One of those is fellow Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, who was on the losing side in the 2005 battle in which the new tiers were adopted.

Kerttula called the day in which that bill passed the House "One of the worst days of my life as a legislator."

Many of those testifying said they feared their colleagues would leave. Others said they eventually would leave, too.

Anchorage School District IT specialist Patrick Wisnewski said he was a lifelong Alaskan who has worked for the district for three years, and now has $10,000 in his state retirement account. Many of his co-workers are in the same situation, he said.

"We'll be leaving employment and finding work elsewhere with better benefits after we hit five years," he said.

Department of Environmental Conservation's Chris Pace said his department, which monitors pipeline spill preparedness, is in danger of losing the young employees it needs.

"They've figured out the Tier IV system, they've figured out the deck is stacked against them," he said.

"They'll likely be leaving after five years and taking their contributions with them," he said.

Anchorage police officer Chris Alexander said he left a job in Montana with full benefits to take job in Alaska.

Like many 24 year olds, Alexander said he took a job without thinking much about retirement, but now he's realized just what kind of retirement a defined contribution plan would offer.

"I have no choice but to take my portable 401(k) and go to the lower 48 and a department down there," he said. "There are six other people on my shift ... who are in Tier IV and are considering the same options, either federal marshals, Secret Service, or other enforcement opportunities."

A dozen or more legislators, Republicans and Democrats from both the House and Senate, attended the hearing. Most if not all were already strongly opposed to the new system.

Rep. Harry Crawford, D-Anchorage, said SB141 was the worst piece of legislation he's seen in his years in the Legislature.

"I've never had anything in 10 years I've been here that made me want to throw up so badly as when we passed this bill," he said.

The public was told that changing the retirement system would save money, he said.

"The Alaska public was told it would stop the bleeding, but it opened the wound," he said.

Department of Administration Commissioner Annette Kreitzer last month told the Empire that the administration would consider revenue-neutral changes to the retirement system, but the options it has seen have increased costs to the state.

• reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or

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