Retirement And Energy Issues Top Coming Week’s Legislative Schedule

Two of the most controversial issues at the current session of the Legislature will surface for floor debate Wednesday in the House and Senate. Senators are scheduled to hear a bill pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that raises the retirement age for state employees to 67. The House will discuss a measure that pits the energy industry against Louisiana landowners.

Sen. Elbert Guillory, D-Opelousas, chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee, is sponsor of a newly written Senate Bill 749. It would set up a two-tiered retirement system that would let employees keep benefits they earn by June 30 this year. However, they would start a new plan and earn other benefits based on age and years of service. The legislation wouldn’t apply to anyone born on or before June 30, 1957 (age 55).

The new retirement age would apply to members of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System (LASERS), but judges and hazardous duty personnel are excluded. It would also cover higher education employees who are members of the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL). Nearly 60,000 state workers would be affected by the proposal.

Most workers would be able to retire with full benefits at any age with 30 years of service. Those with less than 30 years of service could also retire with unreduced benefits, which would depend on their years of service. Employees with between 25 and 30 years of service as of June 30 could retire at 55. Those with between 20 and 25 years of service could retire at 58. Workers with between 15 and 20 years of service could retire at 61. Those with between 10 and 15 years of service could retire at 64. Others with fewer than 10 years of service could retire at 67, or at the retirement age for Social Security, whichever is higher at the time of retirement.

LASERS officials, who are opposed to the retirement changes, released a report last week that shows state employees would lose substantial benefits under the Jindal pension reforms. Examples cited by the analysis showed benefits being reduced from $6,000 less a year to $18,500, depending on the workers’ retirement situations.

The Jindal administration said it has no other choice because the state’s major retirement systems are nearly $19 billion short of what they need to pay full benefits. Spokesmen for the governor said the state this year is spending $2 billion of its budget to pay off retirement debt, money that should be going to health care and higher education. Both areas always get hit the hardest when the state budget has to be trimmed.

Opponents of the changes argue that past governors and legislators have failed to make payments on retirement debt, which began accumulating the minute those retirement systems were created. Affected workers say they are being penalized for the state’s failures.

The opposition is expected to file suit if the legislation becomes law, claiming the changes are unconstitutional because they break a contract the state made with employees. The Jindal administration has continued to say it is confident the changes will pass constitutional muster.

If the education reform measures the governor signed last week are an indication of things to come, the odds are Jindal will win this fight as well — at least in the Legislature.

A dozen bills are on the legislative agenda that deal with legacy lawsuits that are filed by landowners who claim well drilling by oil and gas companies has for generations damaged their property. Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, is the author of one measure that amends a clean-up process approved by Act 321 of 2006. His bill was approved 10-2 in the committee Abramson chairs and is on this week’s House debate calendar.

The 2006 law made the cleanup and amount of damages an issue to be decided by the courts. Abramson’s bill would insert the state Department of Natural Resources into the process. DNR would develop a restoration plan after an oil or gas company claimed responsibility for property damage. That plan would become part of the evidence to be used at a future trial of a legacy lawsuit.

The energy industry says current law encourages lawsuits that hinder development of new oil and gas fields. Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, said there are more than 270 lawsuits pending in the courts with over 1,500 defendants.

Attorneys for landowners don’t like the legislation. They believe it would allow energy companies to pressure DNR and drag their feet in order to improve their chances in court.

Legislators aren’t happy about being placed in the middle of powerful constituents on both sides of the issue. They have been hoping for a settlement in order to avoid further confrontation. Both sides are still talking and legislative committees are listening, but Abramson has decided it’s time to make a move.

Citizens with “no dog in the hunt” only want contaminated sites to be cleaned up, and the quicker the better.

We should have a better idea a week from now exactly where retirement reform and oil field cleanups are headed, but don’t expect a speedy conclusion.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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