By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Republican and Democratic candidates for Alabama House District 74 answered questions about safeguarding state employees’ retirement benefits and looking after retirees in the district in a forum Thursday.
Michael Fritz and Charlotte Meadows, the two Republican candidates for the Montgomery-based House seat, both suggested that as long as the state’s General Fund budget stays robust and keeps growing, then retirement benefits will also continue to grow.
They both stressed the need for improvements in the district’s public education system, which in turn would affect job growth, which would then create more revenue for the General Fund budget ensuring that retirement benefits don’t erode.
The state’s retirement system is funded through employer contributions mostly from the state, employee contributions and investment income.
Rayford Mack, the only Democrat running for the seat, suggested that finding other sources of revenue for the state budget, such as a statewide lottery for health care, could free up money in the budget that could be used on retirement benefits.
Mack is a retired state worker and former Metro Montgomery NAACP president and says he is running partly because he sees how hard it is to retain younger people and businesses in Montgomery.
“Montgomery is a great place to retire, it has been good to myself and my wife, but in all honesty, I’m scared for the future of Montgomery,” Mack said. “I want our children and children’s children to have the same privilege as we do when it comes to retiring.”
The forum was hosted by the Alabama Retired State Employees’ Association and the Alabama Public Employees’ Advocacy League which lobby for state, county and municipal retirees and employees.
House District 74 has the highest concentration of state retirees of any district in Alabama, according to ARSEA/ APEAL.
During her opening remarks, Meadows said that her degree from Auburn in accounting and later her work as the business manager from her husband’s medical practice stressed her belief in financial accountability and stability, especially when it comes to the state budget.
“The most important thing we can do as legislators is to make sure that the state budget is fully solvent and sustainable,” Meadows said. “We have got to make sure that the retirement benefits that you were promised when you were hired stay in place, and then if the state is doing well, then we can fund the COLA, or cost of living adjustment.”
Meadows says that she is running as a conservative Republican but understands that as a state legislator that she needs to put the needs of her constituents before her own beliefs.
“I personally would not ever want to raise taxes, but I do want to make sure that we provide adequality for all our state employees and our retired state employees,” Meadows said.
Michael Fritz, a bankruptcy attorney with his own law firm in Montgomery, said he is committed to growing the economy in District 74 as a way to combat crime.
“When you are proud of yourself and your community you are less likely to commit crimes and I want people to say they are proud to come from Montgomery,” Fritz said.
When asked how they would raise revenue for the General Fund budget, the candidates had varied answers.
Meadows said that while the state has dealt with infrastructure needs through a recently approved gas tax, there is still the issue of Alabama’s failing prison system, and thinks that discussion needs to happen first in order to properly understand the state’s financial situation.
“I’m saying that we start to solve some of these problems, then we know what our expenses will be and we can predict for the next year,” Meadows said. “When you are budgeting you know of somewhat of what money is coming in but every bit is important is that you understand how much is going out.”
Fritz main proposal for increasing the General Fund budget was to increase high-quality jobs to uplift the economy.
“More jobs and better jobs will help this economy grow and it helps shore up your benefits,” Fritz said.
He also said that he would like to hear more of the public’s opinions about whether a state lottery should be created. He does not like the fact that that ticket sales is going to bordering states.
“Money goes over state lines every single week,” Fritz said. “Why are we not capturing that money?”
Fritz also said he supported Medicaid expansion because “it is the equivalent to someone matching your 401K” and thinks money could be freed up in the budget once the state is receiving a federal match for Medicaid dollars.
Mack suggested that Montgomery’s public school system needs a general face lift and wants to see a new high school built.
“No matter what people say, we like pretty things,” Mack said. “When you see that you are going to a pretty new school, it transforms the whole process.”
All of the candidates were also asked what their opinion on David Bonner, the chief executive officer for the Retirement Systems of Alabama, and even those who didn’t agree with him said that Bonner has had a big economic impact on the state.
“You can look at any skyline in the state and see the change that Dr. Bronner has brought to the state,” Mack said. “… You may not like a person personally but you can’t argue with what he’s done for the state of Alabama.”
When asked if they thought a 401K or a defined benefit plan was better for the state retirement system there was diversity in the answers.
Meadows admitted that a defined benefits plan is not as sustainable as a 401K but also said that she isn’t opposed at looking at a change in the system.
Some states in recent years have gone from a defined benefit plan such as RSA’s, where retirees have a fixed monthly income benefit based on their age at retirement, years of service and salary, to a hybrid plan. Hybrids include a reduced defined benefit plan, along with a 401(k)-type plan.
“I think we have to make sure that what we are offering to our employees we can maintain and sustain for 60 years down the road,” Meadows said “I want to be able to keep the promises that we’ve made.”
Fritz also wants to uphold people’s retirement plan promises and wants to protect those who take state employee jobs for the security of a stable retirement plan.
“You make less money than the private sector and with that comes the stability and I think that should be protected,” Fritz said.
The Republican runoff for Fritz and Meadows will be on August 27. The Republican nominee will then face Mack on November 12.
District 74 has been represented by a Republican since 1983. The seat was formerly held by restaurateur Dimitri Polizos until his death in March.