At the end of last week, we got a sizeable Friday newsdump from an unusual source: State Treasurer Beth Pearce. In a report on the state’s public pension funds, she called for new limits on pensions for state employees and teachers. It was duly reported, first by VPR and then by VTDigger, but neither story captured the significance of Pearce’s pivot.
This is, in my view, the single biggest position shift by a top Democratic officeholder since Peter Shumlin abandoned single-payer health care in 2014. That move brought Shumlin’s political career to an ignoble conclusion, since he’d staked his governorship on delivering single-payer. I doubt that Pearce will have to slink off into the darkness, but she might not get the rapturous receptions at party functions that she’s gotten used to.
The pension plans don’t have enough funds to pay promised benefits because, through most of Howard Dean’s governorship and about half of Jim Douglas’, the state consistently shorted its annual contribution. Many have called for a shift from defined-benefit to a 401K-style defined-contribution plan. The former promises definite retirement benefits; the latter only promises to contribute money to the plan. Actual benefits depend on the health of the pension fund.
Pearce had been a champion of retaining defined-benefit. She’s an expert at public finance, so her view has carried a lot of weight. Now, she has abandoned that position. She still supports defined-benefit plans… but she has effectively changed her definition of the term. That’s a big, hairy deal. It puts legislative Democrats under pressure to go along with pension cuts — and that threatens to drive a wedge between the Vermont Democratic Party and two of its biggest supporters: the Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont National Education Association.
I can’t say I blame her, given her recitation of the facts. But this could touch off a political s---storm.
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