8/5/2022 Weekly Update: While the bulk of today’s (long and detailed) email is on the status of the Social Security WEP & GPO legislation, allow me to remind you of today’s (Friday) Tele-Town Hall Meeting as well as provide a quick update on developments with the local option for the 5% COLA.
Today’s Mass Retirees members only Tele-Town Hall meeting begins at 1PM EST. While the primary focus will be the COLA and legislative update, we will also discuss the WEP & GPO. As always, we will also take questions from members. We will prioritize questions based on this email report, so make sure you let our staff know that you read the email and have a question. Remember, there are 2 ways to join the meeting. Either connect through our automated call or dial in directly by calling 833-491-0336 at the time of the meeting.
As we reported last week, the 5% State and Teacher retiree COLA for FY23 is now law. However, the section of the budget allowing the 102 local retirement systems to grant up to the additional 2% COLA on top of the 3% which has already been locally approved for FY 23 was returned by the governor to the legislature with amendment. The amendment would require the approval of the local executive authority, in addition to that of the 5-member retirement board, to approve the additional COLA payment. The language was approved by the House on Saturday and is now before the State Senate. We are urging prompt action, so that local communities can act to approve the additional 2% COLA ASAP.
Out of all the issues of concern to public retirees, none invokes the level of frustration and anger like the Social Security Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO) laws.There is good reason for this. These two unfair federal laws wrongly reduce or even eliminate the ability of thousands of Massachusetts public retirees to collect the Social Security benefit they or their spouse paid for in federal payroll taxes. As you will soon read in the September edition of The Voice, more than 82,000 Massachusetts residents are now impacted by the WEP law alone.
Remember, the WEP reduces the Social Security benefit earned by a retiree who is collecting a public pension earned from employment not covered by Social Security. In most cases, the WEP applies to someone who earned their own Social Security benefit through private sector employment that was separate from their work in a public sector job, which was not covered by Social Security.
The GPO is a separate federal law that applies to those applying for or receiving spousal Social Security, while collecting a public pension from work not covered by Social Security.
Here in MA, no public employees from either the state or municipal levels of government are covered by Social Security. This has been the case since the program was created in 1935. And to be clear, state and local officials did not create or agree to WEP or GPO. These are federal laws created by Congress in 1983. The laws apply to all public employees that do not participate in Social Security. Only the US Congress has the legal authority to change these laws. No state officials, or even the US President acting alone, have that authority.
WEP and GPO change can only come through legislation passed by a majority vote (218) of the US House of Representatives and a super majority vote (60) of the US Senate. This means we are dependent on the support of Congressmen and Senators from states other than MA and the handful of other so-called non-Social Security states (CA, CO, IL, LA, OH, and TX are the primary states with high numbers of public employees not covered by Social Security).
Here is the answer as to why we are still fighting about WEP & GPO after 39 years and why these issues are so hard to resolve: Not everyone agrees with our position that WEP and GPO are unfair or wrong. And even fewer people across the country agree that the two laws should be fully repealed. However there is support for WEP reform, which is why we are focused on that solution.
In fact when it comes to the US Senate, where we need at least 60 votes to pass any law related to Social Security, we do not have anywhere close to the support needed to pass a full repeal law. However, we do believe that majority support can be reached for WEP reform.
And here is where a serious difference of opinion among public retiree advocates and some public employee unions has converged to complicate matters.
Despite 39 years of failed attempts for full repeal and no viable path to victory in the foreseeable future, some have continued with the all or nothing approach that is full repeal of WEP & GOP. These advocates have put their stock in the passage of H.R.82 which, despite having 294 cosponsors in the House, is very likely doomed to a dead end in the Senate.
We applaud the hard work done by those supporting H.R.82 to gain 294 votes. Advocacy is not easy work. Long-term members might recall a time back in the early 2000s, when Mass Retirees helped gain more than 320 House cosponsors on a full repeal bill only to suffer another heartbreaking and maddening defeat due to the lack of true national support.
An alternative approach, which began just four years ago and is supported by our Association, is legislation that reforms the WEP law. There are two bills now before the House relative to WEP reform: A Democratic version filed by Congressman Richie Neal (H.R.2337) and a Republican version filed by Congressman Kevin Brady (H.R.5834). While similar, the two bills have variations that impact the monthly rebate for current retirees, as well as the duration of the hold-harmless clause for future retirees.
Mass Retirees supports a WEP compromise, because we firmly believe that it is the only viable option for bringing relief to current retirees any time soon. While we wish that full repeal of WEP and GPO were possible, the hard truth is that it is highly unlikely to happen. And similarly, the support from the other states just is not there for full repeal or for a reform of the GPO. The issue of spousal benefits is viewed differently from that of the WEP by many members of the House and Senate.
Again, we do believe that the majority support does exist for WEP reform. For instance, the vast majority of Republican Senators do not support full repeal BUT they do support WEP reform. This is because they believe that the WEP formula is flawed and should be fixed, but that it is a fundamentally sound public policy. Obviously, we believe differently.
Unfortunately, those adamant about a full repeal or nothing approach are now interfering in our efforts to pass a WEP compromise. Some have taken to attacking Mr. Neal online, posting messages critical of him for proposing a compromise and not supporting the passage of full repeal in the House
The easiest thing for Mr. Neal to do would be to support full repeal, help pass H.R.82 in the House, declare victory, and then wash his hands of the whole issue. He and the other MA members would be declaring a hollow victory, knowing full well that the bill would likely be dead on arrival in the Senate.
To his credit, Mr. Neal has chosen the harder legislative path that can lead to results benefiting retirees. We strongly support Mr. Neal, because we believe in taking the honest and realistic approach that will finally bring monthly relief current retirees – while fixing the WEP for future generations. After 39 years, we are not interested in achieving a hollow victory!
Accepting reality can be a hard pill to swallow. As you will soon read in the September Voice, our first job is to be honest with our members. Misleading you does not help anyone and is not how this Association has operated for the past 54 years. Character matters and being truthful with you is ingrained within the very character of this Association.
The truth is that after fighting for decades to achieve full repeal, it is now our belief that the only path toward helping retirees, in the near future, is to pass WEP reform. We have a limited amount of time left to do that in 2022. I hope those putting so much effort into the passage of H.R.82 will join us in working towards what is possible instead of chasing rainbows.
Meanwhile, we must continue to support and encourage Richie Neal to cut a deal with his Republican colleagues and send a bill to the Senate that can be passed into law this year. If that fails to happen, it will be due to the perfect being the enemy of the good.
With great appreciation,
Chief Executive Officer
Mass Retirees Association