Both of Ohio’s U.S. senators, among those tasked with finding a bipartisan solution to the nation's looming pension crisis, confronted the devastation in a Statehouse hearing room on Friday.
The rare field hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Pensions was the first staged outside of Washington, D.C., and potentially the last before the committee attempts to craft a solution needed by the end of November.
Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman co-chaired the committee, hearing directly from six union representatives and small business owners from Ohio about the impact of the crisis.
The extended hearing highlighted not only how devastating this crisis is on everyday Ohioans, but also the complexity of the problem.
Bill Martin, president of Spangler Candy Co., the Bryan company best known for Dum Dums suckers, said contributions to his employees' pensions are hurting his business and driving out jobs. Martin called for low-interest federal loans to be repaid over time, although he and others testifying were quick to point out it would not be a bailout similar to the one Wall Street received following the financial crash in 2008-09.
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 the many in at-risk plans, though she never imagined being in the position where her retirement was in jeopardy. 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 must plan for a retirement 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 more than 60,000 workers in Ohio 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 Corp. Current workers also are at risk of losing benefits toward which they’ve paid if a solution is not found.
Brown says the Butch Lewis Act that he proposed is the solution. The bill would have created 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.
The huge pension-related rally at the Statehouse on Thursday was largely in support of Brown’s bill, though the senator said he is open to other ideas.
Portman wants a solution that is “super bipartisan,” meaning virtually everyone would agree to it.
“The goal here is to figure out how to find that common ground,” Portman said “The first thing you do is hear from people because you have to know the severity of the problem in order to get people on board with some of the tough solutions.”
Portman worries that a government bill asking taxpayers to solve this dilemma would not go over well because “99 percent” of those taxpayers aren’t in the protected pension plans to begin with.
Mike Walden, president of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions, said failing to save the plans would have a catastrophic, more widespread impact than many can imagine.
“We need to stop worrying about those at the top of the food chain and focus more on those of us at the bottom,” Walden said through tears.
“That’s what this committee hearing is doing,” said committee member U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.
If at least five committee members from each party agree on a compromise, the solution produced would be guaranteed an expedited up or down vote on the Senate floor with no amendments.