Archived Story

Politicians should leave pensions alone

Published 7:59am Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Last week, a bill supported by the Republican leadership brought to mind the old saying: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The measure would replace independent elected boards for the two pension funds of the Retirement Systems of Alabama with boards dominated by political appointees. Like giving politicians control over billions in hard-earned retirement savings is ever a good idea.

People who are part of the retirement system now vote on the members of the oversight boards for the two pension programs, one for education and one for other public employees. They come from the ranks of employees themselves; teachers elect other teachers, folks like public health nurses or state foresters vote for other public employees to serve on their board. Electing someone like them ensures the board will look out for their interests.

What interests will be served when the politicians control the pension systems?

These retirement funds are made up from the contributions of public employees. The billions in RSA assets represent the careers and hard work of thousands of fellow Alabamians, and a promise that those who have kept us safe or taught our children will have a retirement to live on after years of service.

It is important to note that the Retirement Systems of Alabama has never been tinged with scandal or found acting improperly with the funds employees entrust to it. It has met every obligation, and going forward it has a strong future with solid investments.

RSA has also played an important role in the economic development of our state. By a policy approved by the elected board, 15 percent of the pension funds are invested right here in Alabama. RSA funds were critical in landing Mercedes years ago, starting what is now the massive Alabama automotive industry, moving our state from last to second in the number of cars manufactured. They were instrumental in landing ThyssenKrupp in Mobile.

RSA has been the prime mover in developing the state tourism industry. Starting with the world-renown Robert Trent Jones golf trail, RSA has expanded the facilities and vacation destinations throughout the state, and helped drive a complete transformation of the Alabama tourism industry. From $1.5 billion in the late 1990s, Alabama tourism is now a $9.3 billion industry driven by RSA investments. RSA has had a huge role in creating our modern state economy, and for tens of thousands of jobs.

Into this success the Republicans want to inject politics and special interests. Alabama taxpayers saw what could happen with a politicized board in the PACT fiasco, where politicians responsible for the fiscal health of the state college pre-paid college tuition program ran it into the ground. PACT had to be bailed out with hundreds of millions in taxpayer money, and the program continues to teeter on insolvency.

There seems to be a growing belief in the statehouse that legislators know best. The bills Republicans put first are not about things important to families like creating jobs or improving schools, they are about consolidating control and political games. The latest example being the radical political changes to the retirement boards.

When you get down to it, the proponents of this measure believe that working people are either too ignorant or foolish to elect people capable of looking after their retirement. What seems foolish is trying to fix something that obviously isn’t broken.

Republican legislators seem to forget working people elected them. It is certain the voters have not.

Johnny Mack Morrow is a state representative for Franklin County. His column appears each Wednesday.

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