Coalition stands up for Wyo public pension system

By Dan Neal Equality State Policy Center
Thom Williams

Thom Williams, director of the Wyoming Retirement System, explains how Wyoming’s public pension system works during a town hall meeting in Sheridan, Aug. 14, 2012.

Pensions managed by the Wyoming Retirement System promise stability to our teachers, fire fighters, police, nurses, and the many other people who devote their careers to public service in Wyoming. But the system has been attacked by some state policymakers who say the defined benefit system is in trouble. Some have argued that the existing system should be closed and replaced. The Coalition for a Healthy Retirement System disagrees. Wyoming’s public pension system is healthy, especially in comparison to public systems in other states that have been under-funded or where funds were borrowed to support other programs. The system serves many Wyoming people. The 2011 WRS financial report states that there were 41,991 active members of the system and 23,083 retirees on Dec. 31, 2011. During the 2012 Budget session of the Wyoming Legislature, supporters of the system fended off a proposed bill that would have closed the existing defined benefit system and replaced it with a defined contribution plan. Other legislation did bring changes to the system. The Legislature imposed very conservative management standards that, for the foreseeable future, mean retirees will not see any cost of living adjustments to their monthly benefit.

Watch this video to hear what teachers and fire fighters say about the system

Town hall meetings reach across Wyoming

In an effort to educate the public and public employees about the system and to explain why it is crucial to both better government and the state’s economy, the Coalition for a Healthy Retirement System has planned several town hall meetings that will feature retirees, public employees, and officials responsible for running the system. The first of these meetings was staged Aug. 14 in Sheridan. A virtual town hall meeting was held on Oct. 18 via compressed video to enable people across the state to learn about the system. A third town hall meeting was held in the Department of Transportation Auditorium in Cheyenne on Nov. 8 in Cheyenne. The last live meeting of 2012 is set  in Casper on Nov. 28 at the Nichols Auditorium on the Casper College campus. More than 60 people attended the Sheridan event. Sheridan fire fighter George Neeson said that benefit helped him to decide to stick with the Sheridan fire department rather than seeking higher paying work in the oil patch. His job with the city promises a reliable monthly benefit on which he and his family can plan for their retirement years.
Pension county impact

(Click to enlarge)

Wyoming Retirement System Director Thom Williams outlined the basic aspects of the system and pointed out the many “levers” system managers can use to ensure its long-term sustainability. Those levers include changes imposed by the Legislature that will reduce benefits to employees hired after Sept.1, 2012. He noted the system managers can call for increased contributions from employees, as well.

Why the defined benefit system works

The Equality State Policy Center and the Coalition for a Healthy Retirement System believe there are many reasons for supporting the defined benefit system used in Wyoming:
  • It promises stability with a reliable monthly income that the teachers who educated our children and the police and fire fighters who protected us can use to plan their family budgets.
  • Professional managers oversee investments – and those investments by far pay the benefits the system provides.
  • Good pensions help recruit and retain highly qualified employees. A stable workforce enables schools, law enforcement, and other state agencies to deliver good service to the public.
  • Pension payments are an economic asset that keeps income flowing into the local economies where pensioners live. In 2011, the system paid nearly $300 million to Wyoming residents, benefits that rippled through their local communities.
See our Pension Fact Sheet here. The Coalition for a Healthy Retirement System includes the Wyoming Education Association, the Wyoming Retired Education Personnel Association, the Wyoming Public Employees Association, the Federated Fire Fighters of Wyoming, AARP Wyoming, the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, the Wyoming Highway Patrol Association, the Wyoming State AFL-CIO, and the Equality State Policy Center. If you have questions about the town hall meetings or the public pension system, please contact Dan Neal at 307-472-5939 or email at dneal [at] equalitystate [dot] org.