COLUMBIA, S.C. — Public employees asked legislators Tuesday to find a way to keep South Carolina’s pension system solvent without taking more from their paychecks or further cutting retirees’ benefits.
“It’s just not responsible to ask state employees to pay more,” Carlton Washington with the State Employees Association told a legislative study committee. “Our state employees are already maxed out, and the pay scenario is already horrible.”
Legislators are trying to figure out how to reduce a projected pension debt of $20 billion, which has amassed since 1999 because of a combination of legislative decisions on benefits, underfunding, investment underperformance and fewer workers supporting more retirees.
Retirees noted that debt is not a bill due tomorrow. The amount represents the state investment portfolio’s current worth compared with pension benefits likely owed to all 550,000 people in the system until they die, factoring in career-long salary expectations for current employees.
“We are not afraid the system will fail. We have confidence, but we are concerned” with how legislators will address that long-term liability, said Rebecca Rochester, who represents retired members of the South Carolina Education Association.
“Remember that we kept our part of the deal, and remember the promise when you design your plan,” she said.
Committee members took testimony without commenting. But its co-chairman, Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, said afterward that raising contributions should be a “last resort.”
State workers in South Carolina are paid less than their counterparts in other states and give up more of their paycheck for health care and retirement benefits, according to a state-funded report released earlier this year.
Currently, employees in the main pension system contribute 8.66 percent of their salaries. Officers and firefighters in the smaller system for law enforcement contribute 9.24 percent. Contributions have steadily increased since legislators passed the last pension reform law in 2012.
Representatives for teachers, local governments, law enforcement and others in the system said higher payments will make hiring and keeping employees even tougher.
“I don’t know if we have anything else left to give. To say it’s difficult to recruit or retain good police officers in today’s environment is a tremendous understatement,” said Jerrod Bruder, director of the state Sheriffs’ Association.
“If low pay, working weekends and holidays and laying your life on the line every day was not enough to deter quality individuals from a career in public safety, they must now also consider” sending nearly 10 percent of their paychecks to the retirement system, he said.
As part of the 2012 law, retirees’ annual cost-of-living raises are limited to 1 percent or $500, whichever is less.
Retiree Lynne Schmidt, 62, of Forest Acres, said that covers just one of her prescriptions. The promise of a pension was the only reason she and her husband, both accountants, stayed in state government jobs when they could have earned more in the private sector, she said.
Schmidt, who retired in 2012 after 28 years, said they learned how to do things around their house themselves, from plumbing to roofing, rather than pay contractors. Both retired, they save money by eating two meals a day. They don’t have cable TV or a computer, she said.
“Our pensions are vital to us as state employees,” she told legislators. “You promised us. You promised us when we were hired that if we accepted a lower salary you’d take care of us. Don’t take that away.”