Frivolous Attacks on Pension Reform Draw Attention (For Me, Detention?)

Yesterday morning some of my Education Policy Center friends were down at the State Capitol (now, like me, they can hardly get out of their driveways… snow day!). They joined Dr. Michael Mannino, author of the Independence Institute report Deferred Retirement Compensation for Career K-12 Employees: Understanding the Need for Reform (PDF), for his informational presentation to the joint House and Senate Education Committee.

New Ed News Colorado reporter Nancy Mitchell provided some colorful coverage of yesterday’s unusually well-attended proceedings (hey, I don’t even want to get out of bed at 7:30 AM):

Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Manitou Springs, drew applause from a standing-room only crowd when he closely questioned Michael Mannino, a University of Colorado professor who helped write the report.

“Is it possible that your phrases like drastic tax increases and meltdowns could be fear-mongering on your part … in support of your political agenda?” Merrifield asked, an apparent reference to the report’s sponsor, the Independence Institute, which bills itself as a “free market” think tank based in Golden.

“Could it be that you’re making an assumption to support your personal views that teachers shouldn’t have a defined benefit plan?” Merrifield asked at another point.

“I want people to begin to understand how pensions systems work and the inherent problems associated with them,” said Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation which helped fund the report. “I think we got some of that across to the joint ed committee. I was a little disappointed that Representative Merrifield seemed to take a fairly partisan and fairly non-productive stance.”

Thanks, Mr. Lewis, for making an important point, though I’ll take it a little bit further. Isn’t it ironic that the same Mike Merrifield noted for this inflammatory (some say “infernal”) email message decided to attack a report he didn’t seem to bother trying to understand as “fear-mongering”.

Overlooked in the article was the significant fact that Dr. Mannino’s research on pensions for Colorado university employees (using the same methodology) has been published in the most prestigious academic journal on the subject. That doesn’t seem to matter, though, for some who appeared more interested in scoring cheap political points than addressing or debating the reasonable pension reform suggestions in the report, such as:

  • Remove early retirement subsidies
  • Tie the normal retirement age to Social Security
  • Reform rules for calculation of highest average salary to reduce pension spiking practices
  • Grant new hires the option to choose a defined contribution plan, which non-career employees may prefer over the traditional defined benefit plan

I’m too little to get the ins & outs of this subject. That’s my excuse. But what a shame that a serious topic was treated so frivolously by someone in such an important position in the state legislature. If I acted like that in class, my teacher would give me a detention … or at least send a note home to my parents.

Here’s hoping that more serious policy makers are ready and willing to take a serious look at the findings of Dr. Mannino’s report.