No deal expected from pension panel before deadline

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown celebrates his re-election victory at the Hyatt Regency on November 6, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

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U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown celebrates his re-election victory at the Hyatt Regency on November 6, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Sherrod Brown says a bipartisan solution is still attainable.

The leaders of the bipartisan House-Senate committee tasked with solving a pension crisis that threatens the retirement security of 1.3 million Americans said Thursday they won’t be able to finalize an agreement to send to Congress before Nov. 30 — the self-imposed Friday deadline they set when they established the committee.

Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a joint statement that “we believe a bipartisan solution is attainable, and we will continue working to reach that solution.”

Brown and Hatch, co-chairs the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans, reported making “meaningful progress,” but said the problems “are multifaceted and over the years have proven to be incredibly difficult to address.”

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What’s unclear is whether that means the committee aims to have an agreement by the end of the year, whether it will continue in the next Congress, or whether it will disband altogether and let the new Congress sort out a solution.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who is also a member of the joint committee, said in a statement that letting the multiemployer pension system collapse is “an unacceptable outcome.”

The joint committee, which Brown fought for as part of a budget deal reached last February, operated under the premise that it would have until Nov. 30 to create a deal that could be sent to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendment.

That deal would aim to shore up the nation’s at-risk multiemployer pension plans — pension plans that allow employers to pool their resources to provide retirement for their workers. According to the Pension Rights Center, some 150 to 200 plans out of about 1,400 nationwide, are at risk of running out of money within the next 10 years.

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Among the at-risk plans: Central States, which includes 48,000 Ohio members of the Teamsters union. Brown’s office says some 60,000 Ohioans are in at-risk plans and nationally 1.3 Americans could be affected.

Brown has pushed a bill that would create a low-interest, 30-year loan program to troubled pension systems with no cuts to benefits. That bill, called the Butch Lewis Act, is named after a West Chester retiree who died in 2015 while fighting to save his pension.

Republicans have been resistant to the bill, however, arguing it could be perceived as a bailout paid for by taxpayers. Pensioners in the at-risk plans argue that they paid into those funds over the course of their careers and are only getting what they are owed.

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Mike Walden, president of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions and a retired Roadway Express Teamster from Akron, said he is not surprised that the committee did not reach an agreement by its self-imposed deadline.

“I think most of us, after seeing who was picked by the different sides, knew right away there’d either be deadlock or nothing done at all,” he said. “And here we are.”

He’s hopeful for an agreement next year but added: “It’s going to cost everyone more money if we let it go another year.”

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