- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 15

Middle-class retirees deserve better:

The devastating pension reform crammed into the omnibus spending bill that will likely soon become law would allow pension trustees to slash the benefits of retired workers and cut future benefits for a shrinking pool of middle-income employees.

These people were and are the backbone of our nation’s economy. They drive trucks, mine coal, haul bricks and bag groceries. Corporations have been weaseling out of guarantees for future retirees for years, but promises to current retirees generally have been sacrosanct.

Most of these employees contributed what was expected of them over their working lifetimes and retired - or hope to - with a well-earned nest egg.

The plans that will be affected are known as multiemployer pension plans. They typically involve union workers who are allowed to accrue benefits while changing employers, with each employer contributing to the plan.

About 1,400 such plans currently cover about 10 million workers, and most of the plans are solvent. Between 150 and 200 of them, covering roughly 1.5 million workers, are not. They could run out of funds within the next 20 years, according to the Pension Rights Center.

It’s those pension plans that the legislation aims to benefit. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., an agency set up 40 years ago to guarantee those pensions, says it may run out of money to pay them in 2018, and is certain to be broke by 2025.

Hence the emergency. While it is important to help prevent these plans from becoming insolvent, pension advocates say the deal Congress worked out in haste and then attached to the $1.1 trillion budget bill funding all of government is the wrong way to do it.

That politicians are willing to eviscerate labor law safeguards that have been in place since 1974 under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, known by its acronym, ERISA, is a sign of what little value they place on the futures of the hard-working men and women of Main Street.

Because the plans generally benefit union members, they are not popular with congressional Republicans. Union political influence has been waning for years and some of the plans - such as the Central States Teamsters fund - have a history that includes legendary levels of corruption. Even though that was generations ago, it’s enough to give cover to grandstanding lawmakers who want to look like they have a legitimate reason to vote against older, middle-class workers.

Selling out these workers is the wrong message to send to future retirees. The baby boomers now retiring may be the last generation of Americans to leave work assured of adequate income in old age. It’s not just the 1 percent who deserve security.


The Kansas City Star, Dec. 12

Lesson not learned:

America will never again travel happily into the holiday season without snagging on the memory of Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman massacred 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Nor should we. It was a horrific event that shone a bright light on the nation’s obsession with guns and also the prevalence of mental illness. Adam Lanza, the disturbed 20-year-old gunman, shot himself inside the school. He also murdered his mother, Nancy Lanza.

The nation will observe the second anniversary of the shootings on Sunday with vigils and prayers. These are appropriate gestures of respect. But we have failed to honor the victims with meaningful actions to reduce gun violence or help people with mental illness.

Guns are still sold at trade shows and over the Internet without background checks. These are huge loopholes that polls show more than nine of 10 Americans want fixed. But the U.S. Senate, to its lasting shame, shut down an effort to do so in 2013.

States like Missouri and Kansas continue to pass reckless legislation making it easier for people to purchase weapons and carry them in public places, even if local communities object.

Politicians responded more constructively to the need to help people experiencing mental health crises. New resources and programs were promised and some have been provided, including in Missouri and Kansas.

But both states - especially Kansas - are too cash-starved to devote enough resources to mental health. Neither has expanded Medicaid eligibility, so thousands of people in both states lack consistent behavioral health services.

Health officials in Connecticut performed an admirable service this year with the release of a report documenting how Lanza’s mother and the Newtown Public School District failed by allowing him to refuse services and live in near isolation. Those findings may help avoid similar mistakes.

But the landscape since Newtown is littered with mass shootings - in schools, near college campuses, in workplaces and shopping centers. The latest unfolded Friday afternoon in Portland, Ore. In September, the FBI released a study documenting increased frequency of mass shootings since 2000, citing mental illness, copycat killings and the easy availability of firearms as reasons.

We are learning how to mourn the murdered children and staffers at Sandy Hook. But we have not learned how to do better in their memory.


The Joplin Globe, Dec. 10

Paying the toll:

In the “you had to see this coming” category, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Tuesday asked state highway officials to take a look at turning Interstate 70 into a toll road.

The Missouri Department of Transportation wasn’t kidding around when it said it needed revenue sources if major improvements were going to be made to state highways.

In August, voters overwhelmingly gave the thumbs-down to a sales tax to pay for highway improvements. One of the big objections heard was that the big users -trucking companies - would not be paying their share based on the wear and tear they put on roads.

The Associated Press reported that Nixon has sent a letter to the transportation commission requesting a report by the end of December on options for using tolls to improve and expand the heavily used interstate between Kansas City and St. Louis.

It’s certainly not the first time the idea of toll roads has been introduced. In the 2012 session of the Missouri General Assembly, Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, introduced a public-private partnership bill that would have turned I-70 into a toll road. The operator would have used the tolls to pay for improvements. But that bill failed.

Highway officials say I-70 needs to be widened to three lanes in each direction. MoDOT has estimated such a project could cost between $1.5 billion to $4 billion.

It’s time that Missouri’s leadership comes to grips with the costs of good roads, and tolls could be the answer.

We hope to see some good discussion, as well as a fact-based report issued on using tolls to pay for improvements needed on I-70. It would seem to be a better way of raising funds than a sales tax. At least those who use the interstate would be paying for the repairs and expansion.


Springfield News-Leader, Dec. 14

Don’t fight postal restructuring:

Senators Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill earlier this month joined a group of 30 senators asking the U.S. Postal Service to delay the closing of 82 mail processing facilities - among them, a processing center in Springfield which is currently scheduled to close next month. As many as 200 local employees could lose their jobs if the Springfield center closes.

The closures are part of a large scale restructuring for USPS, which the News-Leader reported on last week, in an attempt to respond to a dramatic decline in stamped mail - more than 50 percent in the last 10 years. The current system was built for the peak mail volume and revenue, according to Stacy St. John, a spokeswoman for the postal service.

St. John says that the restructuring is necessary. She says people don’t use stamped mail service as much as they used to because they’ve moved much of the communication to digital formats. Even after the closure of more than 300 other facilities, stamped mail service is losing money.

The closures, too, would come with a cost. St. John says even local stamped mail will be trucked to Kansas City for processing before being delivered in Springfield. Instead of mailing a check for utilities or rent for delivery the next day, it will take two. The level of service we’ve come to expect and rely on would be gone. Even more important, up to 200 members of our community could be out of work.

The 30 senators, of whom Blunt was the only Republican, said that mandated feasibility studies weren’t conducted and effects of the project are unknown. Blunt expressed concern that the remaining facilities could be overwhelmed by the amount of work being transferred.

We applaud Blunt and McCaskill for their efforts to save jobs in our community. However, waiting until we “fully understand the effects of consolidation decisions” to make a decision is impossible, unless you replace the data with a crystal ball. As our community battles “brain drain,” we ask that our elected officials focus their efforts on finding new, thriving business for our community. And while a wider effort to completely redesign the postal system may well be necessary, putting off these proposed changes will waste even more of our tax dollars.

As we ask our government to be more judicious in their use of our money, we have to be prepared to take a hit somewhere.

If it’s something that has become less important to our society’s productivity and communication, planning an extra day out on mailing our utility bill is worth saving our country nearly a billion dollars each year. Manufacturing and re-manufacturing companies are growing in Springfield and looking for new employees. Built into the first year of savings should be retraining assistance for employees who may want to transition into those areas.

As our world continues to grow and change, we applaud the United States Postal Service for trying to do just that in a way that reduces spending and minimizes the impact to services. We ask our elected officials to support these efforts.

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