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Biss savings bill picks up momentum

Tuesday, Apr 8, 2014

* I watched the debate on Sen. Biss’ retirement savings bill in the Senate Executive Committee not long ago. The NFIB and the Republicans spoke against the proposal, despite claims by Biss that this was actually a creation of the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institute in 2006. It was, he says, supported by both John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008.

The Tribune looked beyond the partisan politics of the moment today and wholeheartedly endorsed the bill

Americans have longer life spans than their ancestors dreamed possible. The private-sector pension, by contrast, flirts with extinction. Federal trustees warn that Medicare’s hospital insurance trust fund goes insolvent in a mere 12 years — followed seven years later by the main Social Security trust fund. And many among us save so little for the future that they risk a retirement diet of Meow Mix.

Sum those perils and the money math looms menacing for today’s workforce. Fitting, then, that the Illinois Senate’s sole research mathematician, Evanston Democrat Daniel Biss, proposes a clever savings plan for some 2.5 million private-sector Illinoisans whose employers don’t offer retirement plans. […]

Workers at companies with 25 or more employees but no retirement plan would be automatically enrolled, with the choice to opt out at any time. Smaller companies could join voluntarily. The workers could choose how much to invest in a selection of mutual funds managed not by the state, but by a low-cost provider (think Vanguard or T. Rowe Price). Individuals who make no choices would have 3 percent of their wages go, via payroll deduction, into diversified target-date retirement funds. Many companies that offer 401(k) plans do the same, automatically enrolling employees in default target-date funds.

Administrative costs for the investment provider and the state could total no more than 0.75 percent of invested assets. An unpaid, seven-member board including the state treasurer, comptroller and governor’s top budget officer would choose the provider and perform risk management and oversight duties. The best protection against corruption, theft or pinstripe patronage: Illinois never would touch the investments. State government instead would wave at the payroll deductions as they travel to employees’ accounts. Those accounts would be portable from job to job; workers with more than one employer would have a single account.

* The Sun-Times looked closely at the opposition

Business groups, including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business are opposed, saying it will burden small businesses, financially and administratively, forcing employers to act as a go-between on a program many don’t want to offer. Insurance and financial advisers also are opposed, but we suspect that’s mostly because the automatic IRA would cut into their business.

The business concerns are legitimate, but given the careful design of the Illinois program, we think the burdens would be minimal. In a country that’s reliant on employer-based retirement systems, it’s inevitable that business will face burdens. The question is how much is too much? This bill does not tip the scales.

Jeffrey Brown, a University of Illinois finance professor and expert on retirement security, is one of many supporters of automatic IRAs, citing research on the power of automatic deductions in increasing participation rates. Brown tell us he likes Biss’ idea, particularly since it avoids the pitfalls of automatic IRA proposals in other states, including ill-advised attempts to guarantee a rate of return. He worries, though, that the state board, as currently envisioned, may become politicized, something we’d like the bill sponsors to address.

Brown, to whom we were referred by the bill’s opponents, the American Council of Life Insurers, said he would prefer a federal automatic IRA program, as would we. But the odds of that passing Congress aren’t good.

Opposition by the insurance industry is probably more important here than anything else. We’ve got a lot of big insurance companies in this state, so that may explain much of the GOP opposition in committee.

* SJ-R

The slow economic recovery has contributed to the problem. More Americans have found themselves chronically unemployed or underemployed. Companies have cut back on wages and benefits, including retirement plans, for workers.

Low-wage workers aren’t just high school lifeguards or college students selling jeans at the mall on weekends. They include manufacturing workers, retail staff, salespeople, cashiers, restaurant cooks and wait staff, small-business owners and employees and more.

Dreams of a comfortable, carefree retirement are considered out of reach for many Americans. Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, calls it “a straight path to poverty in old age.”

“There is no example in America or elsewhere now in history of a system that just kind of hopes for the best and educates people and leaves 25-, 30- and 40-year-olds making the kind of decisions necessary for a dignified retirement,” he said. “I know that sounds paternalistic, but I think there is a giant wealth of overwhelming research that makes that clear. So you have to do something.”

Thoughts?

- Posted by Rich Miller        


25 Comments
  1. - Allen Skillicorn - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 9:56 am:

    Investing in your future is great, but doing it by force? What kind of precedent does this set?


  2. - john doe - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 9:56 am:

    I think it’s a great idea!


  3. - john doe - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 9:58 am:

    Everyone is free to opt out.


  4. - ZC - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:02 am:

    My immediate first thought is, if Biss proposed it, lean in and pay attention. In a good way.

    He’s one of the more serious thinkers in the General Assembly. Nor is he easy to ideologically pigeonhole. How many Republican state conservatives can say they helped abolish a unit of government (OK so it was just the Evanston township, but still)?


  5. - Chicago Cynic - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:06 am:

    Great idea - proving once again that Daniel is one of the most thoughtful legislators in Springfield.


  6. - Demoralized - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:07 am:

    It’s an easy way for people to start a plan. Doesn’t force employers to contribute and doesn’t force employees to participate. I don’t see the issue here.


  7. - Grandson of Man - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:08 am:

    At first glance, the plan seems like a good idea, because it involves workers who have no private retirement plans. Plus, these workers can opt out at any time.

    “Companies have cut back on wages and benefits, including retirement plans, for workers.”

    This concerns me very much and is the issue of our time. Wealthy corporations are raking in the profits, and their policy mouthpieces and politicians are fighting tooth-and-nail to weaken workers’ bargaining power.

    This is why I hope that SB 2682 is called for a vote and passes. It’s the bill that would make it mandatory to teach labor history in public schools. Students need to learn that a strong middle class was based in part on labor struggles. Many of the good salaries and benefits are won through labor negotiations; they’re not just bestowed on workers by benevolent business owners and corporations.


  8. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:11 am:

    Re: Allen– As another commenter noted, individuals can opt out. It’s not required. And businesses are free to offer any kind of retirement plan they want, they just have to offer SOMETHING. The one the state is setting up has no cost/time commitment for businesses other than adding another line on the payroll (which they already do).

    As for what kind of precedent this sets… what it does is attack our future liabilities for state safety net programs in a logical way. Fine by me!


  9. - BleugrassBoy - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:15 am:

    Since Social Security is only supposed to be a safety-net, not a guarantee of a comfortable retirement so folks would be wise to start saving to supplement SS now.

    This may not be a perfect plan but it sounds like a good start.

    When it comes to retirement savings SOMETHING is better than NOTHING.

    And the easier and simpler it is for people to understand the greater the likelihood that they’ll participate.

    Hope something like this passes. It’s about time IL did something that rewarded or supported personal iniative.


  10. - Rich Miller - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:18 am:

    ===but doing it by force?===

    Workers can opt out, as John Doe rightly notes.


  11. - OneMan - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:23 am:

    As long as we avoid some sort of state guarantee in any way shape or form it seems like a good idea to me.

    Would have been kind of nice to have put a little bit away when I was in HS and working various jobs.


  12. - atbat - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:27 am:

    Another winning legislative proposal from one of the most thoughtful folks in Springfield.


  13. - A guy... - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:37 am:

    It’s a step in the direction to help yourself. I’m always sympathetic to payrollers, but this is one more of several auto-deducts that could be added to their current software, or a payroll company could easily adapt to. It also opens the door for small business to offer pension bonuses when business is good. It’s a pretty clever plan and it sends workers the message that the most reliable person in your retirement planning is….you.


  14. - Bemused - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:40 am:

    This is somewhat along the lines of what I have wondered about for a few years now.
    One of the reasons I often hear for the death of the traditional Defined Benefit Pension is it’s lack of portability. People change employers often now during their lifetime.

    I happen to have been part of a Craft Multi-Employer Defined Benefit Retirement Plan. There were times I might work for more than six employers in a year and they all made contributions on my behalf to the same fund. Depending on where I was working at any one time the contributions could vary in amount by several dollars per hour. Each local area voted on how much of their pay went into the fund. Benefits were determined by a multiplier of the amount of money paid in on your behalf, more in more out. The plan is overseen by Trustees from both the Employers group and the Craft Leaders. By law those Trustees have a personal financial liability to the fund for some years after they leave their posts, keeps them from being overly generous. Future benefits are determined by the health of the fund. I know in the case of our fund and many others, the multiplier use to set our monthly benefits has been reduced many times in the last ten years. This does not effect those already receiving benefits but will impact those who retire in the future. Should markets improve and the funds health improve those multipliers can be reset upwards.

    I would think something like this could be implemented state and nationwide. It could work within the present financial system. Private companies could set up plans and compete for retirement contributions. Government oversight would be needed of course to make sure the plans could deliver promised benefits. Joe and Jane Public picks a plan they like and a contribution rate they can live with. Then the employers withhold that and send it to the Plan of choice. Yes there should be a base minimum as it is in the best interest of the Nation at large. In today computer world this should not be hard and the bank boys get to make a buck on it.


  15. - Excessively Rabid - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:42 am:

    The business end of it doesn’t seem that burdensome. You would just withhold one more thing from the employee’s pay and remit it to the state along with your state income tax withholding, probably in the same payment the way you do with federal tax and SS. The employee end of it has some risks. The poorer workers who need this the most have a tendency to get in a bind and withdraw retirement money to pay bills, getting socked with income tax on it plus a 10% penalty. That’s not helping. I don’t have a better answer, but it could end up being in effect a federal 10% surtax on the earnings that were intended to be saved for retirement.


  16. - Walker - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 10:51 am:

    Another conservative idea opposed by Republicans primarily because a Democrat sponsors it.

    The only downside is that some employers will view this as an easy way to abandon their current pension plans, and blame it on “The Government.”


  17. - Andrew Szakmary - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 11:26 am:

    I suppose this is better than nothing, but to pretend that this bill solves the retirement savings crisis in this country caused by stingy employers is a real stretch. Assuming a 30-year contribution period and 5% real return after fees (probably attainable if you are 100% in stocks), this would replace at most 8% of preretirement income using a prudent withdrawal rate of 4% recommended by most financial planners. I think a real solution will require significant, mandatory employer contributions as well, but good luck getting Republicans to vote for that.

    Also, I must respectfully disagree with those of you lauding Biss as one of the most thoughtful members of the legislature. He was a huge supporter of the draconian pension cuts that were passed in December that are clearly illegal under the plain language of both the Illinois and U.S. Constitutions. I would expect a thoughtful person to at least understand plain English, and not vote to violate 2 constitutions that he solemnly swore to uphold.


  18. - dupage dan - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 11:37 am:

    What prevents folks from doing this themselves thru payroll savings, deferred compensation plans, mutual funds, IRAs, 401Ks, and the like. I am all for the plan if it makes it easier for folks to plan and save. So many are focused on the here and now - the next car, a bigger house, nice vacations, etc. Start early and keep saving. Ms dupage dan set up an automatic deduction scheme and we never see the money so we can’t spend it. Easy Peasy, bypass squeezy.


  19. - dupage dan - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 11:39 am:

    === This is why I hope that SB 2682 is called for a vote and passes. It’s the bill that would make it mandatory to teach labor history in public schools ===

    Another education mandate. I found that I could teach my son all sorts of things outside school. It ain’t the only place where learning takes place. And for those who believe that the entire job of education belongs in school only? I am all for helping the helpless but I don’t want to pay to help the clueless.


  20. - Johnson's Corner - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 11:43 am:

    I agree with Andrew Szakmary.


  21. - illinifan - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 12:00 pm:

    Agree with Andrew…for some reason the public is anxious for public employees to join in the 401K retirement plan vs what they have. This race to the bottom is not the best, and employers should be encouraged to begin reestablishing defined benefit plans.

    During the start of the fiscal crisis I was watching a subcommittee hearing in the U.S. Senate on pensions…Members of the panel presenting evidence, including Peter Orzag said that the 401K and this type of plan was never instituted to benefit the employee but rather was put in place to benefit the market, and that the general public had been sold a bill of goods.


  22. - Ellen Gill - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 12:20 pm:

    I understand how this helps Wall Street but unclear how this helps me other than being a paternalistic was to make my financial decisions.


  23. - thechampaignlife - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 12:33 pm:

    I support this default opt-in concept but I’m surprised that opponents haven’t raised a concern about its impact on State revenue. I’m not sure how the numbers would work out but if 1/2 of the income-earning population see a 3% reduction in their taxable income, wouldn’t that translate into roughly a 1.5% drop in income tax revenue?

    If this were a Roth IRA, the State wouldn’t lose its tax revenue now (or ever, unlike pensions and traditional IRAs). It’s like a backdoor way into taxing retirement income and captures the tax revenue during their working years rather than losing it when they retire to Florida and Florida gets their sales tax revenue. They earned the money because of Illinois, Illinois shouldn’t be left holding the short end of the stick.


  24. - Anony - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 6:23 pm:

    When ideas like this are popular, we’re probably near a market top. The reaction to this in 2009 would have been interesting.
    This sort of scheme has the effect of broadening dependence on the stock market, making financial bailouts more likely. It is a sort of government bet on the stock market, resulting in even greater enmeshment between government and finance. It also encourages companies to cut “costs,” such as wages and benefits, to boost stock prices.


  25. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Tuesday, Apr 8, 14 @ 7:10 pm:

    Daniel Biss is a smart guy. That is gonna be an awesome primary someday.


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