Bills target retirement age, benefits for state workers
By SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin state employees would have to work two more years before they could qualify for early retirement, and their pensions would be calculated differently, under a pair of bills being circulated by Republicans in the Legislature.
One proposal, by Sen. Duey Stroebel of Saukville, would raise the minimum retirement age for most state workers from 55 to 57. For police and firefighters, it would rise from 50 to 52. Stroebel's other measure would use a state worker's highest five years of salary, rather than three, to set their pension payout.
Neither would affect people currently near retirement age. The higher retirement age requirement would only apply to workers younger than 40, and the pension calculation would not take effect for five years.
Most members of the Wisconsin Retirement System — including state and local government employees and teachers — have to work until they are 65 to receive full benefits, but they can retire at age 55 with reduced pensions.
Both bills, which are opposed by unions representing state workers, were introduced in the last session but didn't even receive a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Stroebel circulated them again last week for co-sponsors with a Sept. 25 deadline.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has not yet reviewed the proposals, spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said when asked if the bills would have a better shot at passing this session.
Opponents are already hearing rumblings from workers and retirees even though the bills haven't even been officially introduced yet.
Rick Badger, executive director of the state's largest public employee union AFSCME, called the proposed changes ill-advised and a solution in search of a problem.
"Politicizing the process unnecessarily harms participants and puts the entire system at risk," he said in a prepared statement.
Police officers are expressing grave concerns through online social media sites and emails to union leaders, said Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, which has about 10,000 members statewide.
Palmer said there's no reason to make a change and the proposals would actually cost the state more by having higher-salaried officers stay on the job longer rather than be replaced by cheaper, younger people. Older officers are also more likely to incur expensive workers compensation and disability costs, a further drain on the system, he said.
"The state has made a legitimate public policy decision that there is value in having older officers retire," Palmer said. "We don't want officers in their 50s and 60s chasing criminals down the street."
Stroebel argues in a memo seeking co-sponsors that the delay in qualifying for early retirement is justified because people are living and working longer and it would improve the solvency of the state retirement fund. Also, having pension benefits based on five, rather than three, years of the worker's highest salary would make it more difficult to game the system by collecting large amounts of overtime in the final years on a job, he said in the memo.
Wisconsin has a fully funded pension system, and has for years, unlike most states that are struggling to fulfill their obligations to retired public employees. Gov. Scott Walker frequently cites Wisconsin's healthy system on the presidential campaign trail, even though the fund was solvent long before he became governor in 2011.
There are about 570,000 current employees and retirees in the system. At the end of 2012, of the currently working employees, about 31 percent were under the age of 40 and would have been affected by the higher minimum retirement age, based on an analysis of Stroebel's 2013 bill.
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach said the bills are another attack on public workers, who lost nearly all their collective bargaining rights under the Act 10 law passed by the Legislature and signed by Walker in 2011.
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