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Retirement talks heat up in state

By Matt Pommer

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bills have stirred broad public employee interest in retiring. The Department of Employee Trust Funds reports thousands of public employees are lining up for Wisconsin Retirement System pension information.

WRS covers more than 500,000 people, including retirees, employees and those who have retained vested rights.

It covers state workers and virtually all local government workers outside of the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, both of which have their own pension plans.

Getting out may be a smart move for public employees. That also may be true for the tens of thousands of people who have a vested right to pensions but have left public employment, perhaps decades ago, and have not started drawing their WRS pensions.

Two options are examined when a new WRS pension is started. The new retiree receives the higher of either a formula-driven amount or a money purchase annuity reflecting the amount in the individual account.

The rush for information came during the struggle over Walker’s budget repair bill. Included in the bill is a major study of the WRS. It has all the smell of a future move to change and probably reduce provisions in the pension system.

When Democratic senators left the state to prevent a vote on his bill, Walker threatened sending layoff notices to 1,500 state employees, setting the stage for layoffs in early summer.

Layoffs usually are imposed by seniority. Those laid off are entitled to unemployment compensation, paid in this case by state taxpayers. The low-seniority people are making significantly less than longtime senior workers who might retire.

The rush for retirement information suggests hundreds of state workers will get off the state payroll. Organized labor folks say opting for pensions now is widespread in every agency and most school districts.

Their departures seemingly would help balance the state budget. That, of course, suggests state government can operate without replacing them. Itís the same sort of question involved with layoff notices. Does the state need those 1,500 workers?

There’s not much political glamour for Walker in retirements. On the other hand, his curbs on collective bargaining propelled him onto the national stage.

Walker rebuffed compromise efforts, saying in early March he would not accept any change in the bill. But the governor’s office then released copies of e-mails indicating his aides were negotiating with Democratic senators.

The budget bill standoff presented a dilemma for moderate Republicans in the Legislature. Suggesting compromise meant they could face primary challenges next year from the Tea Party movement. Their support for Walker clearly establishes an issue for the 2012 election.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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