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Pension reform might need dose of anger management

May 24, 2010|By LLOYD "PETE" WATERS

The modern-day American dream has always included some sort of pension or retirement plan for the American worker.

It seems that dream is developing into a nightmare for many workers. Pension plans have come under serious scrutiny in New Jersey and other states, as well as in Canada and Greece because of significant budget deficits.

The bankruptcy of large companies in the private sector also has taken a heavy toll on American workers and their dreams for retirement.

In Greece, a million workers have taken to the streets in protest because of substantial changes to pension plans. Anger permeates that society.

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In this country, political promises made during the economic heyday to employee unions in regard to pensions now are causing some havoc for politicians as they must address huge state budget deficits.

Will the pension systems in place remain solvent for the American worker or go the same way as Greece and Canada, where these programs have been significantly changed?

Today, because of a stagnant economy and past unwise pension practices and budget monitoring, many states are now realizing that they no longer can afford liberal pension plans.

Some planning experts have suggested that in New Jersey, "the state is on track to have a pension train wreck." They also suggest that the current pension program there is the single biggest reason that property taxes are skyrocketing.

In New Jersey, the pension system is $46 billion in the red because of a multitude of political promises, lack of state accountability because of deficits, poor investments and the recent fall of the stock market.

Many states are now beginning to wrestle with this same issue, including Utah, Colorado, California and New York, to name a few.

In New Jersey, the governor has refused to deal with the pension deficit until some of the many problems with that program are corrected.

The head of the teachers' union in Bergen County, N.J., summed up the union's relationship with the governor in an e-mail prayer that said "Dear Lord." God had taken his favorite actor, Patrick Swayze; his favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett; his favorite singer, Michael Jackson; and his favorite salesman, Billy Mays. "I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie (governor of New Jersey) is my favorite governor."

The estranged bedfellows of politics and employee unions are beginning an uneasy courtship because of this emotional issue of pension reform.

Remarks such as those above certainly display a rank sense of anger from the union membership.

Locally, Paul Muldowney seems to be always defending his past position on pension reform when he served in the Maryland General Assembly many years ago. Fairly or not, people are always quick to criticize Muldowney's support of state pension changes while he was a delegate.

His defeat in a later election and his difficulty in returning to Annapolis as a representative, I suspect, are most likely aligned with this pension issue.

From his perspective, he defends his vote as necessary. Many voters, however, have been unforgiving.

As many state legislatures continue to confront huge deficits, I can't help but wonder if the politicians who are ever courting employee unions for votes can avoid this growing issue.

Or will the employee unions adopt the same attitude as the New Jersey union in opposing any genuine fix offered by political representatives trying to deal with diminishing resources?

The answers in resolving current and future pension problems will not be easy. Workers are still searching for that elusive American dream and an adequate retirement.

Whether or not this country, in the long term, can avoid the looming problems associated with employee pensions as they have been exposed in Greece is something that will occupy state legislative chambers for many years to come.

Can the American dream of a decent retirement survive? If it doesn't, I suspect a large dose of anger management might be required.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail

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