TN congressmen avoid involvement in TVA pension fight

A union representing TVA employees is calling for congressional hearings on proposed changes to the employee pension plan and is asking lawmakers to hold the utility accountable for its pension obligations, reports the News Sentinel.

But members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation don’t seem eager to take sides in the fight.

“We are well aware that TVA’s pension system is significantly underfunded and reforms are necessary,” a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Chattanooga, said last week. “While we do not inject ourselves in the decision-making of the board, we do understand that we will be hearing from those affected by these proposals and look forward to those conversations.”

Other lawmakers and their aides issued similar, noncommittal statements after union representatives made the rounds on Capitol Hill recently to lobby Congress to block the proposal.

“As the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors works to correct shortfalls in their pension plan, I have asked that they continue to strive to balance their concerns of rising costs for ratepayers with the promises they made to their retirees, employees and families concerning their benefits and future retirement,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, said he’s aware of concerns about the pension fund’s long-term health and stressed “it is important that TVA ultimately gets this fixed.” But he gave no indication he would get involved.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-South Pittsburg, said he has faith that Bill Johnson, TVA’s president and CEO, has been working “diligently” on the pension issue “with an eye toward balancing the needs of workers, ratepayers and retirees.”

Union members don’t see it that way.

“This is a federal government corporation, but those who work in the executive suite are lining their pockets like TVA is their personal business while forcing ‘austerity’ on frontline employees,” said Gay Henson, president of the Engineering Association IFTPE Local 1937. “It’s wrong. It’s shortsighted. It may be illegal — and if it’s not, it should be.”

The union, which represents more than 2,600 TVA employees, is objecting to a proposal TVA management says would bring the underfunded pension fund up to proper levels over the next 20 years.

The proposal includes freezing benefits for employees hired since 1996 and moving them into a 401(k) plan, as well as reducing cost-of-living adjustments for retirees who have been part of the plan since 1968. The changes would affect some 11,000 current employees and 24,000 retirees.