Wisconsin Governor's Race and Retirement Security

by Phil Anderson

One of the ironies of politics in America is the propensity for people to vote against their own best interests. Quite frequently ordinary people vote (if they vote at all) for politicians who clearly don't care about them or the problems they face. Politicians, many of whom are millionaires, not only don't understand ordinary people but actively espouse policies that are bad for the majority of their constituents.  

Secure retirements are an example of how the well being of most Americans is ignored by the political leadership. For many years experts have been talking about a coming retirement crisis. Many people will not have enough money to retire, or to retire with any financial security. There are many reasons for this problem and there are sensible, available solutions. But little is being done to address this problem primarily because of conservative, mostly Republican opposition.  

In addition to not addressing the retirement crisis, conservatives are exacerbating the problem by weakening existing retirement programs. Historically Republicans promoted replacing reliable defined benefit pensions with unstable defined contribution savings accounts commonly called IRAs and 401(k)s. Employer sponsored defined benefit pensions used to be the standard and provided stable income to many senior citizens. Evidence is increasing that 401(k)s don't work well for most people and are contributing to the retirement crisis.  

The same politicians are going after Social Security and Medicare, claiming these “entitlements” must be cut. In the 1930's, when President Franklin Roosevelt first proposed a government system of old age pensions, he was branded a “traitor to his class.” Republicans vehemently opposed the Social Security Act. At that time 50% of older Americans lived in poverty. Today people 55-75 are better off financially than other age groups. Despite this success, Republicans like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin advocate converting Social Security to private accounts, Medicare to fixed amount vouchers and are opposed to the Affordable Care Act.  

Wisconsin will be affected by these retirement problems. Before long 20% of residents will be in their “golden years” and this population is growing. Many of these people will have inadequate financial resources for a comfortable retirement. According to AARP, 41% of Wisconsin's private sector employees (about 928,000 people) work for employers that do not offer any kind of retirement plan. This, along with decades of declining wages, low-paying jobs, rising health care costs, and the inability of average workers to save on their own, will affect Wisconsin's economy.  

Governor Walker and the Republican controlled legislature in Wisconsin are failing to address these retirement issues. They have ignored legislation introduced by Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) and Representative Eric Genrich (D-Green Bay) to establish a voluntary pension program for private employers. This program would be modeled after the highly successful public employee retirement program (Wisconsin Retirement System or WRS). In addition they have repeatedly attempted to weaken, politicize, and privatize WRS which serves about 500,000 Wisconsin residents. Their efforts include converting it to a 401(k) style program and reducing benefits for public employees.

None of these changes would save taxpayers money but would would undermine the stability of the program.   V

oters in Wisconsin need to know where the candidates for governor stand on these important issues. Is their governor going to act or continue to ignore the problem? Does their governor care about people's future retirement security?

A retirement advocacy group called Protect Our Wisconsin Retirement Security (POWRS)** is trying to answer these questions and provide information to help voters make more informed decisions. They recently asked the candidates' views on two issues. One, do they support WRS by not messing around with the successful program? Two, do they their support establishing a similar program for private sector businesses and employees.  

All Democratic candidates who responded expressed enthusiastic support for both protecting the WRS and creating a similar program for the private sector. The candidates were Michelle Dolan, Tony Evers, Matt Flynn, Andy Gronik, Mike McCabe, Mahlon Mitchell, Kelda Roys, Kathleen Vinehout, and Dana Wachs.

The candidates cited several reasons for their views: the WRS is one of the best public employee retirement plans in the nation, it is 100% funded, it provides good benefits, and it costs taxpayers very little. They also had many good comments on supporting Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and generally improving the financial security of everyone. Republican incumbent Scott Walker did not respond to the survey. The full text or the candidates' response is available at www.powrs.org.  

Wisconsin has a large field of Democratic candidates running for Governor. News articles list 10 candidates as real contenders with five or six others with little chance of success. Given the Democrats' similarity of views, the POWRS survey won't help voters in making choices in the primary election. But it does show a stark contrast between Democrats and Republicans. The Democratic candidates are aware of the problems and support solutions.

The Republican candidate didn't bother to respond. This should make the choice in November easier.   It is not difficult to predict the consequences of continuing to ignore the retirement crisis. Failure to act will impact Wisconsin's economy and strain public safety net programs. It will create many future problems for families in caring for elderly relatives. If you believe a secure retirement is important to your future, or the future of you children, voting Democratic is the logical choice. It is the choice that is in your best interest.    

**POWRS is a statewide group of retired citizens working to protect WRS and to enhance retirement security for all Wisconsin residents. Full disclosure disclaimer: I am a WRS retiree and member of POWRS.