An effort to give private-sector workers the ability to ditch their 401(k)’s and instead participate in a state-run retirement system that would offer a more reliable pension payout could be on the horizon in Wisconsin.
Within days of Wisconsin’s pension system being named the most solvent in the country by the Pew Center on the States, Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, pitched a proposal to create a separate but equal system for non-government workers like small business owners and farmers to buy into. The private worker fund would pool contributions from participants but not receive any additional money from taxpayers.
While no bill has been formally introduced, the proposal is based on the notion that a pension fund, unlike a 401(k), is designed for long-term stability and generally garners higher returns on investments over time.
Hansen cites the long-term financial strength of the Wisconsin Retirement System, which has roughly 550,000 participants, as a reason a similar retirement plan should be offered to non-government workers.
According to Hansen, the State of Wisconsin Investment Board (SWIB), which oversees the state system, has averaged a 10.6 percent return on investments over the past 29 years.
“This is an opportunity to open it up to other people and have a well-managed, secure fund,” Hansen says. “Fewer people feel confident these days that their retirement money will be there.”
Working off that same idea, Buzz Davis, a retired state government planner and a member of the American Federation of Teachers' Wisconsin Retiree Council, also says it’s time to provide non-government workers with a more secure outlook for their retirement years.
Like Hansen, he says a pension plan is the answer.
On Monday, Davis plans to present the idea to the Wisconsin Coalition of Annuitants, an organization that represents public-sector retirees.
Davis is the state’s AFT representative to the group. He says he has yet to talk to anyone associated with the state-run retirement system about his idea, including Hansen.
Davis says the switch in the private sector from pension to 401(k) savings plans has been going on for the past 30 years, causing many to now envy the retirement benefits public sector workers have collectively bargained for over the years.
“Conservatives will say that public employees are overpaid and have too many pension benefits compared to the private sector,” Davis says. “It’s time to stop bringing down those who are doing well and instead to help out those who aren’t doing so well in the private sector. That’s the union philosophy.”
Kara Slaughter, the government relations director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, says many farmers lack options when it comes time to retire.
In addition to Social Security and any savings, the primary method that farmers use to fund their retirement is selling their farms.
As such, most farmers feel compelled to sell their farms to the highest bidder, which is often an existing large farm that is looking to expand.
“If they had another alternative for funding their retirement, they could consider selling to a smaller farmer or someone young just getting started,” Slaughter says.
The efforts by Hansen and Davis, should either gain traction, would put Wisconsin alongside states like California and Connecticut that are also looking into the creation of a state-funded pension system for private-sector workers.
In Connecticut, a task force was created in March to look into whether the state should offer a retirement plan to the increasing number of people whose companies don't provide a pension or a 401(k) savings program.
Connecticut Sen. Edith Prague says the task force was created because of the lukewarm response the idea received from her colleagues. Prague, a Democrat, says the cost to the state to administer another retirement system was chief among the concerns.
The task force is scheduled to report back to the Connecticut Legislature when its session reconvenes in January.
“I happen to think it’s a great idea,” Prague says. “I know a lot of seniors who are struggling on Social Security and who aren’t making enough to make ends meet.”