Vermont teachers, state employees say they were ‘blindsided’ by proposed pension fund plan

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MONTPELIER – A bill in the Vermont Legislature aimed at taking on a growing deficit in the state’s pension fund continues to face opposition from teachers and state employees.

At a public hearing on Monday, both groups said they feel blindsided by the bill, specifically the burden it would place on them to reduce the $5.8 billion shortfall in the pension system.

“If this is what it’s like to be a state employee, I’ll tell my kids and my grandkids don’t ever come and work for the state,” said Greg Machia. “I never thought in my 30 years I’d be talking about pensions.”

The legislation would have state employees and teachers pitching in more toward their pension plans, while increasing the age most workers would see retirement benefits.

With unfunded liabilities in Vermont’s pension system set to increase by over $600 million next year, one of the few areas of agreement has been a sense that something needs to be done.

“We’re taking on this work because we’re incredibly worried about the future of our retirement system, and we refuse to kick the can down the road and jeopardize the future of that system,” said Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D-Orange).

Amid backlash from groups like the Vermont NEA, some lawmakers have tried to gather support for alternative solutions that would put less of a burden on Vermont employees.

On Friday, House Progressives tried to add an amendment that would require wealthy Vermonters to pay a 3 percent surcharge on income exceeding $500,000 to create a new revenue stream. It failed in a 125-21 vote.

The Progressive Caucus is urging House and Senate leaders to reconsider the current proposal.

Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray had a similar reaction, calling the bill a “broken commitment to teachers and employees.”

“Those most impacted by this proposal are Vermont women. According to the Vermont NEA, more than 75 percent of Vermont teachers are women,” Gray said in a statement on Saturday.

Teachers also pointed this out during their testimony on Monday.

“Women have historically made less than men – we are the breadwinners of our family, we are providers of health insurance, and we provide financial security in retirement,” said Debora Killkelley. “There are many other ways this problem can be resolved, many other sources of money that could be used to make up this debt the state has created.”

Some teachers have scheduled picket protests in response to the bill, with at least two happening on Tuesday. Teachers from the Maple Run Unified Union School District will gather in St. Albans at 4 pm, and another group will gather at Champlain Valley Union High School early Tuesday morning.

Last week, NEA Vermont President Don Tinney said the proposal fails to take advantage of the massive influx of federal dollars, adding that he believes wealthy Vermonters and large corporations should have to pay their share.

“This is coming in a year when our teachers have put themselves at risk, have gone to work every day to meet the needs of the children and youth of the state, and their thank you is that they have to work longer, pay more and get less in retirement,” Tinney said.

The plan put forward by the House would have the state pitching in $150 million, but it would also cost teachers about $309 million, hiking the retirement age and boosting teacher contributions.

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