Raleigh, N.C. — Retired state employees and teachers say 2017 is the year state lawmakers should help them catch up on the cost-of-living increases they've seldom seen in the past eight years.
Since 2009, the cost of living has increased between 11 and 14 percent, depending on the benchmarks used, while retired teachers and state employees have received only a 2 percent total cost-of-living increase in their pensions. As a result, the real-dollar value of their pensions has dropped by about 10 percent.
"You promised us cost of living, and now we're having to decide to buy medicine or buy food," said Sen. Joyce Waddell, D-Mecklenburg, a retired teacher and sponsor of Senate Bill 314, a proposal for a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for all retirees in 2017.
North Carolina Retired School Personnel Association president Joan Vass said many of her members made very little while they were working, and many now live at or below the poverty level in retirement, so even a small increase would make a difference.
"Many cannot make ends meet without finding a job, but most are really too old for that to be an option," Vass said. "Two percent in COLA in seven years is, in my opinion, a disgrace."
"As a retired state employee, sometimes it gets pretty tough on what's getting paid and what's not getting paid," agreed State Employees Association of North Carolina retiree leader Benny Brigman.
Rep. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg, is a co-sponsor of the companion measure, House Bill 497. She receives the state pension of her late husband, former state lawmaker Pete Cunningham, and she said she had to look hard to even find the one-time bonus lawmakers gave retirees last year in lieu of a COLA.
"I think it was $20," Cunningham said.
Cunningham noted that legislative leaders had found money for tax reform and larger contributions to the rainy day fund in recent years but not for retirees who worked for the state for many years.
"One thing is for certain, we have not looked after our seniors in this state," she said. "What we do to the young and what we do to our seniors, it will tell the story for the entire state."
While the bill in the House has Republican primary sponsors, the bill in the Senate does not. That echoes 2016, when House lawmakers included a retiree COLA in their budget plan, but Senate leaders did not. At the time, Senate leaders said their concerns about the long-term fiscal health of the pension plan made them unwilling to place additional demands on it.
The Senate version has been sent to the Rules Committee, a negative sign, while the House bill has been sent to the Pensions Committee.
The Senate is expected to unveil its 2017 budget plan in the coming few weeks.