Ohio senators confront devastation of pension crisis

Columbus Dispatch

Both of Ohio’s U.S. senators, among those tasked with finding a bipartisan solution to the nation’s pension crisis, confronted the devastation in a Statehouse hearing room Friday.

The rare field hearing of the congressional Joint Select Committee on Pensions was the first staged outside of Washington — and potentially the last before the committee attempts to craft a solution by the end of November.

The senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman, co-chaired the committee and heard about the crisis directly from six union representatives and small business owners from Ohio.

Bill Martin, president of Spangler Candy Co., the Bryan company best known for Dum Dums, said contributions to his employees’ pensions are hurting his business and driving out jobs. Martin called for low-interest federal loans as a solution, to be repaid over time, although he and others who testified said the loans would not be a bailout like the one Wall Street received after the financial crash of 2007-09.

The committee, made up of four Republican senators, four Democratic senators, four Republican House members and four Democratic House members, chose Columbus in part because of how deeply the state is connected to the crisis — 66,000 Ohio pensioners are in at–risk plans.

Roberta Dell is among those pensioners. She planned to retire comfortably with her husband after both worked for more than 40 years at Spangler Candy. But her husband died from stomach and liver cancer just short of retirement age. Now, the 65-year-old widow is faced with a dwindling pension and retiring alone, not knowing when she will be able to finish working.

“A lot of us live paycheck to paycheck,” said Dell, the chief union steward at her company. “I thought I was invincible and would live forever and could work forever. I thought that I would never age, and here I am and retirement is around the corner and I am not prepared. It was my decisions I made through my life on what I decided to do with my money. So, unfortunately, I am in this pickle, as so many other workers are.”

The largest among the funds — the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund — faces unfunded liability of $17.2 billion. More than 300 such plans across the country are at risk of insolvency, and 1.3 million nationally are facing crippling benefit cuts unless deficits are addressed in multi-employer pension plans guaranteed by the federal government through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. Current workers also are at risk of losing benefits toward which they’ve paid.

Brown said the Butch Lewis Act that he proposed is the solution. The bill would create a low-interest, 30-year federal loan to troubled pension plans, with no cuts to retiree benefits, but it is stalled in the Senate and unlikely to garner enough bipartisan support.

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