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Legislation giving participants more say in MPRA benefit cuts reintroduced in Senate

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, right, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced the Pension Accountability Act to amend reforms passed in 2014.

Bipartisan legislation giving participants of struggling multiemployer pension funds more of a voice when benefit reductions are being considered was reintroduced Friday in the Senate.

The proposed Pension Accountability Act was introduced by Ohio Sens. Rob Portman, a Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, both of whom served on last year's Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans, which expired before a reform package could be approved.

The bill amends the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act by making participant votes binding in all situations and only counting returned ballots.

One criticism of the current MPRA system is that unreturned ballots are counted as a "yes" vote for benefit reductions, known as suspensions. Also, only larger plans seeking to implement suspensions to avoid insolvency allow for a participant representative in the process.

Since the passage of MPRA in 2014, the Treasury Department has approved 13 MPRA applications for benefit suspensions and denied five; another three applications are under review.

The most recent approval came in February for the Southwest Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters Pension Plan, Independence. At the time of the pension fund's June 2018 MPRA application, it was 49.3% funded, with $227 million in assets and $460 million in liabilities as of plan year 2017. Without benefit cuts, the pension fund was projected to be insolvent by 2036.

In a joint statement, Mr. Portman called the proposal a "commonsense fix to the MRPA voting process as we work toward a broader solution," while Mr. Brown said, "Washington doesn't understand that workers sat at the negotiating table and gave up raises because they were counting on these pensions when they retired."

Karen Friedman, executive vice president and policy director of the Pension Rights Center, applauded the idea of a "commonsense technical fix to the unfair and undemocratic voting process."