FARGO — For thousands of retired workers in North Dakota, and for millions across the country, hope that their pensions won’t disappear rests in a bill currently stalled in the U.S. Senate.
Some of those North Dakota retirees met at Marlin’s restaurant in Fargo Tuesday evening, Oct. 15, to write letters to Sens. Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven urging them to support the Butch Lewis Act of 2019. The bill would provide low-interest loans to pension funds to ensure they remain solvent for the foreseeable future.
Many pension funds across the state are in danger of running out of money in about five years, said Dennis Kooren, chairman of the Fargo Pension Protection Committee.
In emailed statements, Republicans Cramer and Hoeven both stressed the importance of working on a bipartisan bill.
“We support the goals of the Butch Lewis Act, but are still working with other senators to get to a bipartisan solution that will fully address the structural problems of these pension plans,” Hoeven said.
As of Tuesday, the bill had 28 Democratic sponsors, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota, and two independent sponsors.
Cramer, who signed onto a similar bill in the U.S. House during his tenure as a congressman, said he's working with other senators on a bill that “makes systematic changes to the multi-employer system and provides plan administrators new tools they can use to make sure that, over time, the plans will be fully funded and the promises we made to workers are fulfilled.”
For Kooren, the possibility of another bill is not enough. He said he wants Cramer and Hoeven to support a viable bill currently in the Senate rather than wait for a bill that has failed to make an appearance.
Kooren said he's been told about a possible bipartisan replacement bill for several years now, adding that one such bill was expected to be introduced in September but has yet to be created.
Some of the retirees at the restaurant on Tuesday are part of the Central States Pension Fund, one of the largest multi-employer pension funds in the country accounting for over 500,000 workers, including more than 2,000 in North Dakota.
Kooren said if the pension funds implode, especially large ones like Central States, it will not only affect millions of families across the country but also businesses and the economy.
Kooren and Bob Berg, vice chairman of the MN-ND Committee to Protect Pensions, said the Butch Lewis Act isn’t a bailout, with Kooren adding that the workers are asking for money that they worked for and put in the fund. “For me this is restitution, not a bailout,” Kooren said.
Berg pointed to the recession of the late 2000s and the housing market crash, both of which affected the pension funds.
“All these big Wall Street companies were bailed out,” Berg said. “Here in the working class, we get stuck.”
Kooren said for those affected by this pension crisis — many of whom are veterans and have health issues that make it hard for them to work — not having a sustainable pension can impact their families and health care.
Kooren said this fight for pensions has turned him into an activist, a role he didn’t expect to play in retirement. But he plans on a trip to Washington, D.C., in the next few weeks to rally support among senators for the bill.
“We’re fighting for our rights right now,” Kooren said. “This is a fight for our lives at the end of our lives.”
The Butch Lewis Act will be discussed in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 16. It was introduced in July.