Assembly panel discusses rehired annuitant bills

Officials and citizens representing a broad variety of interests testified Thursday (Nov. 17) before a state Assembly panel that is considering two bills on the practice of rehiring retirees.

The hearing of the Assembly Committee on Insurance began at 10 a.m. and concluded around 3:30 p.m., with the bulk of discussion focusing on A.B. 318, introduced by Rep. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville; and A.B. 352, introduced by Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, I-Manitowoc. Both pieces of legislation seek to clarify and change rules governing the practice of state government entities rehiring retired employees.

“My bill is designed to help clear up some confusion with certain aspects of the retirement fund and increase its financial viability,” Ziegelbauer said, “and I think most importantly, bolster the confidence in the system by the taxpaying public.”

At issue for the legislators is the ability of Wisconsin employees to retire and later return to state employment, and in doing so collect a salary as they draw on their Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS) pension. The practice has been called into question in recent months, including a couple of highly publicized examples at UW-Green Bay.

But legislators Thursday largely focused on the broader policy implications as they apply to a variety of state government entities, echoing calls of legislators, UW System stakeholders and others to have a larger conversation around the practice. In addition to UW System representatives, the panel heard from K-12 education, municipal interests, the state technical college system, law enforcement and more.

The state Department of Employee Trust Funds, which administers WRS, provided testimony on the system and how it works, in addition to calling for revision.

“A change to this policy is needed,” said ETF spokeswoman Shawn Smith, “to keep public faith in the integrity of the system.”

Smith also conceded that the current required break in service, at 30 days, is problematic, especially in discerning a “good-faith” intention to retire. At one point in her testimony, Smith commented “The 30-day break in service is unenforceable.”

Both pieces of legislation discussed Thursday would require rehired state employees working halftime or more “abate” — to not collect their annuities — until they are done working entirely. Ziegelbauer’s proposal would increase the minimum period of employee separation from an institution from 30 days to 180 days.

Among those testifying at the hearing were UW System representatives Grant Huber, UW System University Relations; Don Nelson, UW-Madison director of State Relations; and Greg Summers, UW-Stevens Point interim Provost. The trio stressed the value of rehired retirees while emphasizing the System’s desire for a clarification of the rules governing their return.

The UW System and its member schools want to work with legislators to strike a balance between filling critical needs — rehired annuitants often are brought back to teach a course or two when a replacement can’t quickly be found — and safeguarding the trust of the taxpayer, Huber said. He also suggested two possible amendments to the bills — one that would lessen the proposed 180-day separation, and the other that would allow for flexibility in special circumstances (such as when part or all of a faculty member’s salary is paid through non-state funds).

The Insurance Committee also heard from Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who has been an outspoken critic of the rehired retirees practice generally and UW-Green Bay specifically. Nass reiterated his charge that UW-Green Bay officials broke the law in rehiring retired Vice Chancellor Tom Maki, and alleged top officials have misled the public in regard to the matter. ETF found last week that Maki’s rehire this spring was not in compliance with state policy governing rehired retirees. Chancellor Thomas K. Harden has said the University is exploring an appeal.