ND teacher pension deadlock may be resolvedBISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A key legislator on Friday reluctantly endorsed allowing increased contributions to North Dakota's teacher pension funds to be included in contract negotiations between teachers and school boards.
By: By Dave Wetzel, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A key legislator on Friday reluctantly endorsed allowing increased contributions to North Dakota's teacher pension funds to be included in contract negotiations between teachers and school boards.
The concession by Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, clears the way for a House vote on legislation that would substantially increase payments to the pension fund over the next four years.
The bill would boost pension contributions from 16.5 percent to 24.5 percent of each teacher's salary in two 4 percent increments. The increases would take effect in July 2012 and July 2014, and the responsibility for paying them would be split between teachers and their school employers.
State law now allows school boards to pay a teacher's share of his or her pension contribution as a substitute for a salary increase. Ninety-three of North Dakota's 226 school districts do this as part of contract agreements that cover more than 3,700 teachers, according to the state Teachers’ Fund for Retirement.
The House pension legislation sought to bar school boards from negotiating to pay the teachers’ 4 percent share of the 8 percent payroll increase during the next four years. The Senate's version of the measure left the issue up to school boards to decide.
A conference committee of three House members and three senators, headed by Grande, has been deadlocked for several days about how to resolve the differences between the two bills.
To break the logjam, Grande voted Friday to support the Senate's position on pension contributions, which allows the legislation to go to the House floor for a vote. But it does not resolve the debate since the House, which will vote on the bill next week, may reject the bargain or simply kill the bill altogether.
Grande is chairwoman of the House's Government and Veterans Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the teacher pension legislation. She has also been chairwoman of a legislative interim committee that recommends bills affecting public employee benefits, including pensions for teachers and state workers.
She sponsored legislation, which the House defeated in February, to close the teachers’ pension plan to new hires and provide new teachers with a 401(k)-style retirement plan that did not offer guaranteed benefits.
Grande said Friday that teachers, during the drafting of the pension measure, had emphasized they were willing to shoulder part of the burden of bolstering their pension fund. Analysts say it is at 70 percent of its ideal funding level and will exhaust itself within 30 years unless reforms are made.
Allowing schools to pay a share of the pension increase is not in keeping with that understanding, Grande said.
“When we take steps to do something different here, and work to shore up these funds with taxpayers’ dollars, there should be a buy-in and an obligation that's made, and I'm not seeing that,” Grande said. “I'm very disappointed with that.”
She was visibly upset after the vote, leaving the room seconds after it was concluded and telling a reporter she was not interested in discussing it.
Senate bargainers on the conference committee said the issue should be left to local school boards.
“I guess the negotiation thing is more of a principle than a money issue,” said Sen. Don Schaible, R-Mott, a former president of the Mott-Regent school board. “It is a big issue, I know, but I still think it's a local negotiated issue.”