- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

TOPEKA, Kan. — At the memorial building in downtown Topeka this week, James Lockhart presented a crowd of Kansans with several options for fixing Social Security, but avoided endorsing one specific plan.

“The key thing to get out is that there’s a sense of urgency here,” Mr. Lockhart, deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration, said in an interview before the Tuesday event. He later showed the mostly gray-haired crowd a bevy of graphs and charts illustrating the system’s approaching financial woes, and told them, “The sooner we act, the better. … It’s unsustainable, and we need to make changes.”

Mr. Lockhart is on a whirlwind, cross-country tour, teaming up with Republican lawmakers at more than 15 town-hall meetings so far. He joined Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun for the Topeka event before heading to California.

The idea of Social Security personal accounts — which President Bush is pushing — is being presented as one possible solution, along with several others. “I don’t think it’s the only solution,” Mr. Ryun said. “I want to bring everyone to the table.”

The crowd of about 100 was disproportionately older and skeptical of reform.

“I like it the way it is,” Audrey Frentzel, an 80-year-old retired hospital worker, said of Social Security. Both Mr. Lockhart and Mr. Ryun stressed that older folks wouldn’t see any change to their benefits, but Mrs. Frentzel said she doesn’t think private accounts would help poor people at all.

Almost every hand in the room shot up during the question-and-answer time, which was heated at points. But Mr. Lockhart noted that while audience members had pointed questions, none questioned whether the system has financial problems or needs change. “They realize we have to do something,” he said, adding that this wasn’t the public sentiment a year ago.

Still, the crowd was tough.

Sylvester Zollichoffee, 71, received applause when he asked Mr. Lockhart and Mr. Ryun why the president doesn’t pay back Social Security trust fund money and stop using it for other purposes.

“If they pay that money back into Social Security, Social Security would be solvent for years,” said Mr. Zollichoffee, who came to the meeting armed with a printed transcript of a recent Senate Budget Committee hearing and a press release from Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and ranking member of the panel, who has criticized Mr. Bush for this reason.

As he does in all such meetings, Mr. Lockhart showed the crowd a computer program that displays several proposed solutions and calculates how far they’d go to help fix Social Security’s projected $4 trillion shortfall over the next 75 years.

For instance, one combination of solutions he showed would be to increase the payroll tax by 1 percent and increase the retirement age to 70. This would reduce the shortfall to $500 billion, the computer showed, but it wouldn’t keep the system solvent in the long run.

Next, he entered a plan — similar to what Mr. Bush has discussed — that allows 3 percent of an individual’s pay, or half the current 6 percent payroll tax to be diverted into a private account.

The proposal also would slow the growth rate of benefits by changing the way they’re calculated. This plan also would reduce the shortfall to about $500 billion but would keep the system solvent for the long term.

One woman in the crowd asked Mr. Lockhart why he hadn’t highlighted the proposal to raise the amount of income subject to the payroll tax from $90,000 to $140,000. He did so and the computer showed it would reduce the shortfall to about $2.8 trillion without any other contributions.

Many in the crowd strongly supported this tax change, however, and Mr. Lockhart said he has found this to be the case across the country. “There are lots of millionaires out there. Why stop at $90,000?,” said Ronald Dragoo, a 53-year-old audience member who works at Goodyear Tire and lives in Topeka.

Eugene Sallee, an 81-year-old retired engineer, was more open to private accounts than others, but was hungry for more details, such as whether the accounts would be guaranteed by the government and what types of stocks and mutual funds would be allowed for the investment.

“It’s fine to say they’re going to invest in private accounts, but what are they going to invest in?” he said after the meeting. Mr. Sallee — who didn’t ask any questions publicly — seemed encouraged by Mr. Lockhart’s presentation. “That’s the first plan I’ve seen presented,” he said.

Mr. Ryun, like many Republicans, is trying to discuss a sensitive subject, while not scaring people away. “I don’t want personal savings accounts to be the hindrance in bringing people to the table,” he said. “At the same time, they may very well be part of the solution.”

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