Bill helps co-ops offer pensions

Bill helps co-ops offer pensions

- Many co-ops provide pensions through pooled plans.

- Soon-to-expire exemption would force plans to comply with funding rules.

- "Timeout" from premium increases included in bill.

BIPARTISAN legislation was introduced by Sens. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) and Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, that would make it easier for charities and cooperatives to continue to offer pensions to their employees.

The Cooperative & Small Employer Charity Pension Flexibility Act of 2013 would ensure that rural cooperatives and charitable associations are not swept into the funding rules of the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA), which would require them to divert funds from critical services and jeopardize their ability to provide pension benefits to workers. Because of their unique structure, these groups have been exempt from current law since 2006.

Many rural cooperative associations and charities provide their employees with retirement benefits through defined-benefit multiple-employer pension plans, now known as Cooperative & Small Employer & Charitable (CSEC) plans. These plans allow small, community-focused employers to pool their resources to achieve economies of scale otherwise available only to large employers.

When Congress passed PPA, which fundamentally changed the way most pension plans are funded in order to protect participants and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), it recognized that the new rules were not necessarily appropriate for rural cooperatives' multiple-employer-defined benefit plans because, by design, the plans pose little risk of inability to pay benefits.

Consequently, Congress granted the plans a temporary exemption from PPA, which was later broadened to include eligible charities under the Pension Relief Act of 2010. Without congressional action, the temporary exemption will expire, and CSEC plans will be forced to comply with PPA funding rules. That will result in many small nonprofit employers being unable to continue to provide pension benefits to middle-class families.

"The PPA was meant to protect employee pensions, but in the case of rural cooperatives and charities, it could jeopardize plans for employees," Roberts said. "Our bill recognizes these unique plan structures by creating greater flexibility that enables employers to offer stable futures for their workers without passing the cost on to rural communities through increased costs for services."

"Congress should be doing everything it can to make it easier for employers to offer a pension to their employees," Harkin said. "Without action, many cooperative and small employer charities — including dozens of Iowa co-ops, private schools and branches of nonprofits — will struggle to continue to provide pension benefits and could be forced to reduce their services to the public. This important, bipartisan bill will give these employers the necessary flexibility to continue offering benefits to their workers."

The new legislation introduced would help charities and cooperative associations by implementing pension funding rules that reflect the unique design of their CSEC plans and protect plan participants.

The rules are substantially similar to those to which CSEC plans are currently subject, with modifications to make them work better and result in less volatility. CSEC plans would have the flexibility to opt into PPA in 2014 if they want. The act imposes additional transparency requirements on CSEC plans so participants have access to accurate information.

The legislation also provides for a "timeout" from scheduled increases to PBGC premiums. Last year, CSEC plans were indiscriminately subjected to significant premium increases without regard to the unique structure of the plans. The act would freeze premiums at current levels while the agency re-evaluates how much CSEC plans should be paying for pension insurance.

Sens. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) and Al Franken (D., Minn.) are also original cosponsors of the bill.

The bill has been endorsed by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Assn., Girl Scouts of America and the Rural Broadband Assn., among others.

Volume:85 Issue:30

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