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Lawmakers implored to increase COLA, other benefits

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(The Center Square) – As inflationary pressures continue to weigh on consumers’ pocketbooks, Massachusetts retirees in the state pension system urged lawmakers to consider cost of living adjustments at a hearing Thursday.

Nearly 50 speakers weighed in on one of the dozens of bills the Joint Committee on Public Service has on its docket as testimony was taken at the two-and-a-half-hour meeting.

The legislation includes Senate Bill 1638, and companion House Bill 2505, which is an act to provide fair and affordable public retiree benefits with a series of adjustments, including revised contribution caps into the federal Medicare program.

Another bill introduced this legislative session, and discussed at the hearing, is Senate Bill 1713, which proposes the formation of a special commission to examine the feasibility of COLA increases for retirees within the Massachusetts State Police.

Also in the mix is House Bill 2427, which proposes raising the COLA base for public retirees from $13,000 to $16,000 and making future changes to the consumer price index.

A number of the speakers who provided testimony to the legislative panel are current or retired educators.

Max Page, president of the 115,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, said persistent rising across-the-board costs for basic goods and services had challenged educators across the state.

In his testimony, Page said there is the possibility of “state pensions erod(ing) over time” when COLA is not factored into the equation.

“The cost of living for Social Security, in which Massachusetts public employees do not participate, is based on increases in the consumer price index that applies to the full benefit,” Page said.

In the past half-century, Page said COLA increases in Massachusetts have diminished retired educators’ salaries, from 68% in 1971 to 15% in 2022.

Ann Tierney, who retired from teaching in Massachusetts in 2006, said she has been grappling with increased premium costs, which have yet to be absorbed from prior COLA increases.

“I am pleading for your help in stabilizing my Medicare costs,” Tierney said to the panel.

Phyllis Neufeld, who retired from teaching in 2015, offered similar remarks to committee members.

She described the state’s current system of applying COLA increases as “grossly unfair” and said some recent bills would “protect pensions from the ravages of inflation.”

Marie Patrice Hurley, speaking on behalf of the Retired Educators of Massachusetts, spoke of HB 2427, which, she said, would help provide an antidote to the rising costs retirees have been persistently contending with annually.

“It provides a tremendous inequity among retirees,” Hurley said of the current system in place.

Luke Bonin, vice president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, spoke to several pieces of legislation, including SB 1713.

“These bills will serve to attract and keep well-qualified and desperately needed members to the field of law enforcement,” Bonin said.

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