A "special account" and a "gentlemenís agreement" were part of my first conversation as a new Senator, eight years ago, who had just been appointed to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee. The issue at hand was whether there was enough money in the retirement system for the Fiscal Committee to provide cost of living benefits to retirees.
I thought it was very strange that 10 members of the Fiscal Committee had the power to set cost of living benefits. I assumed wrongly that there was an actuarially sound process in the retirement system to do that. Retirees who were friends actually came to Concord to advocate for their category of retiree such as state troopers or teachers. It was a very odd situation.
The special fund got money in years when the financial markets returned much more than the assumed rate of return. And the gentlemenís agreement was that we would not provide cost of living increases if the special account fell below $300 million. Those were signals that something was wrong in the retirement system.
But there were also many years when the system was underfunded Ö putting off costs into the future. The recession and fall in investment returns brought the problem to the forefront along with new accounting rules for state and local governments to publicly report their pension liabilities. Today, we know the system does not have enough money to meet its long term obligations to current and future retirees.
Senator Jeb Bradley (Wolfeboro) introduced Senate Bill 3 on Friday afternoon with hundreds of union members and representatives of public employers attending. This is the Senateís attempt to reform the New Hampshire Retirement System. The goal is to bring stability and viability to the system for the benefit of current and future retirees at a cost that is affordable for the state, counties, municipalities and school districts.
As Senator Bradley said on Friday, for the past decisions, "there is more than enough blame to go around." The issues involved in reforming the retirement system have serious implications for all of us Ö current and future state and local government employees as well as taxpayers. And there is going to be plenty of pain to share with no easy answers.
The retirement reform bill (SB 3) is the fourth major initiative from the Senate majority. Already passed and on its way to the Governor is SB 1, the bill I introduced that passed the House and Senate by wide, veto-proof margins. It removes a state mandate on municipalities, school districts and counties that they must pay step increases and other benefits even after a union employment contract has expired.
These measures are significant and address major challenges that face the state as well as local governments and school districts. Along with the budget, they are the legislative initiatives the Senate of 2011 will be remembered for tackling.
As with the beginning any long term construction project, there is great anticipation and the use of a bit of imagination to envision what the completed project will look like. That was part of a discussion I had last week with Shannon Reid from the Community College System.
Our discussion reminded me of conversations in 2003 about the funding and building of the Puksta Library at the Claremont campus. Today, the library is a well used and a central part of the college, making the campus more attractive and functional to students.
The new project for River Valley College will cost $3 million. And while it will not expand the physical footprint of the campus building, it will enable the college to increase its capacity to educate greater numbers of students more effectively.
Documents explaining the project in the Governorís capital budget proposal explain that "funds would enable the renovation and reconfiguration of existing space to support River Valley Community Collegeís allied health programs, education and computer science programs, and computer science programs as well as provide greater multipurpose functionality to accommodate enrollment increases across an array of programs."
Of the nearly $19 million proposed in Governor Lynchís capital budget for the Community College System for fiscal years 2012-13, $3 million, or roughly 15 percent, is directed to the Claremont campus. The appropriation will go through the capital budget process and with limited state resources, nothing is for sure.
First stop for the capital budget is the Public Works Committee in the House. Then, it will go the House floor and move to the Senate on March 31 which is the deadline to exchange bills between the House and Senate.
The statewide system is growing rapidly. Enrollment has nearly doubled since 2000 with 12 consecutive years of enrollment growth; double-digit increases in each of the last two years, and 27,000 students served last year. But that growth and the systemís ability to serve its students is dependent upon ongoing investment by the state in this key part of our education system that is critical to the future of our stateís economy.
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