State and municipal public safety employees gathered on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Thursday, March 31, 2022, to urge senators to act on a bill to rework the state’s pension system for police, firefighters and other public safety employees. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

State and municipal public safety employees gathered on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Thursday, March 31, 2022, to urge senators to act on a bill to rework the state’s pension system for police, firefighters and other public safety employees. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Public safety employees promote pension plan

Police, firefighters urge action on bill for defined-benefits for pensions

Dozens of public safety employees filled the steps of the Alaska State Capitol Thursday to call on members of the state Senate to pass House Bill 55, which would create a defined benefit pension program for state and municipal public safety employees.

“Our current retirement system sets our public safety servants up for failure in retirement,” said Paul Miranda, president of the Alaska Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Our state is losing money and valuable experience due to the inability for us to retain public safety members.”

It costs the state between $100,000 and $200,000 to train public safety employees in Alaska, said Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives where the bill passed last year. But once able, many of those workers go to other states with better retirement programs, he said.

The state changed its retirement program in 2005 after finding itself with billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities caused by miscalculations by the state’s actuary. But the new program was driving talented workers out of the state Josephson said, and the plan proposed by HB 55 was modeled after successful programs in other states.

“This bill has been vetted and re-vetted,” Josephson said.

The state is now one of only two states not to have such a program for public safety employees, according to Chuck Kopp, a supporter of the bill. Kopp is a former Republican member of the Alaska House of Representatives and a former police officer.

[House cancels floor sessions until next week]

Speaking at the rally Thursday, Kopp and other advocates of the bill said the lack of a reliable pension program was causing trained public safety employees to leave Alaska for states with better programs, chiefly the state of Washington.

The bill was passed by the Alaska House of Representatives last year with bipartisan support and was referred to the Senate Labor and Commerce committee at the beginning of this year’s session in January.

Despite the broad bipartisan support, Kopp said the bill has been stalled in the Labor and Commerce Committee by its chair, Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage.

“That chair chooses to listen to the Alaska Policy Forum, Americans for Prosperity and the Reason Foundation, who hard over advocate against any type of public safety reform for retirement plans that would go back to any version of a defined benefit system,” Kopp said. “That is their focus rather than the sacrifice and the risk taken by these public safety professionals.”

The Reason Foundation submitted a letter of opposition to HB 55 when it was in the House which argues the bill risks underfunding and assumes too high a rate of return on investment.

Americans for Prosperity is a national think tank funded by billionaire Charles Koch whose family’s Koch Industries made its money primarily in the oil industry. The Alaska Policy Forum and Reason Foundation are both members of the State Policy Network, a national network of libertarian think tanks. A 2013 study by the Center for Media and Democracy found that 83% of SPN’s funding came from its top five donors, including organizations controlled by the Koch brothers.

In an interview with the Empire Thursday, Costello said she met with Kopp and representatives from public safety unions and a meeting for the bill has been scheduled for Monday, April 4. Costello said HB 55 needed a thorough review and that her office had recently received an updated actuarial report that will be discussed at the meeting.

“I’m getting a lot of pressure to fast track (HB 55),” Costello said. “We need to thoroughly review it, we will take questions on Monday and see where it goes.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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