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Bad-tasting COLA


Any talk of cutting pension benefits for military personnel is going to be met with fierce opposition.

And for good reason. Members of our armed forces accomplish extraordinary tasks that most Americans wouldn’t do for all the money in the world. They work under incredibly difficult circumstances that often take great tolls on themselves and their families.

Few would argue that the men and women who serve our nation in uniform don’t deserve the benefits that come with their jobs. Many believe that it’s the least we could do for those who protect our interests around the globe.

But like with most other governmental entities, the military has had to consider slowing the growth of its retirement benefits. The two-year budget deal passed by Congress last week included a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments for military retirees younger than age 62.

“The military retirement system is unfair and costly. Only 17 percent of service members — those who serve 20 years — get pensions, the Pentagon says. Most people don’t stay that long, meaning 83 percent who serve less than two decades get no retirement pay,” according to a Dec. 23 story by the Associated Press. “But someone who enters the military at age 18 and stays 20 years starts drawing pension checks worth half their base salary immediately at age 38 — rather than having to wait until their 60s — and gets the payments for life. It’s a practice without parallel in the private sector, though some government agencies such as city police departments do it. Critics say 40 years of pension for 20 years of work is overly generous, but retirees say they deserve it for doing risky jobs that are tough on them and their families and that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t volunteer for.”

The provision in the proposed budget bill would reduce cost-of-living adjustments for retirees ages 61 and younger.

“Starting Dec. 1, 2015, cost-of-living adjustments for pensions of people under 62 would be modified to equal inflation minus 1 percent; then at 62, retirees would receive a ‘catch-up’ increase that would restore their pensions to reflect levels as if the cost-of-living adjustment had been the full consumer price index in all previous years,” the AP story says. “But they wouldn’t get back what was lost, meaning a reduction of nearly $72,000 in benefits over a lifetime for a sergeant first class who retires at age 42, by one group’s estimate.”

Legislators such as U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-21st District, of Plattsburg and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said they oppose the recommended changes. They intend to revise this plan before it’s enacted.

Their concern is understandable, but facts can be stubborn things. And the fact is the federal government cannot keep funding everything at current levels.

“The retirement system hasn’t been changed materially in more than 100 years and was designed when people didn’t live as long, second careers were rare and military pay was low,” according to the AP. “Many people now have second careers after retiring, collecting the pension as well as income from their new jobs — and in their 60s are also getting Social Security payments, to which they contributed while in the military.”

We don’t believe pensions for military personnel should be eliminated as they have a difficult time early in their careers generating enough income to fund their own retirement plans. But the tweaks that have been proposed would save the government about $6 billion.

All levels of government must be more flexible on the kinds of retirement benefits they offer employees. Many taxpayers are having a hard time financing their own retirement plans let alone paying for those offered by the government. We need to start pension reform somewhere, and this proposal is a good start.

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