Social Security concerns were at the top of a list of questions that a group of retired teachers had for the two U.S. Senate candidates Tuesday.
Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon, both running for retiring U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s seat, spoke to the Association of Retired Teachers of Connecticut at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington.
While Social Security seems like a natural concern for a group of retirees, the retired teachers asked both candidates what they would do about a retirement issue largely specific to them. They wanted to know what each candidate would do to repeal Social Security’s Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision.
The first provision, the pension offset, impacts retired teachers’ spousal benefits under Social Security by using their government pension to offset it, sometimes entirely. The other provision, affects teachers who have paid into a pension as a teacher, but also paid into Social Security through some other job. It reduces their Social Security benefits to avoid giving them a “windfall” of government retirement benefits.
But teachers maintain that because they paid into both programs, they should be eligible to receive both benefits just as anyone else would.
Murphy, who spoke to the group first on Tuesday, said he’s co-sponsored a bill to address the issue, but the bill, called the Social Security Fairness Act, was never passed by the House. He said he hopes 2013 will be the year it finally gets changed. But he told the teachers fixing it may be difficult to do because it would be expensive.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not sure that even if we get it on the table we’ll be able to take care of all of it. But even if you repair the penalty such that teachers got some portion of that lost money back, it would help,” Murphy said.
When the retired teachers asked McMahon if they could count on her support to repeal the two provisions, she said they could count on her to research the issue.
“I am a little bit confused about it, myself and I’ve read up on the issues and I’m really trying to understand the full impact of the government offset provision,” she said.
What McMahon said did seem clear was that if someone has paid into Social Security and a separate pension, they should be able to get the benefits of both. The answer got her a round of applause out of the audience.
“There are for me a couple issues that have me confused, but I can tell you my basics is if you’ve paid into both, you should be entitled to both,” she said.
Deborah DeRienz, a retired Naugatuck teacher of 37 years, said after listening to the two candidates, she was still undecided as to who she’d vote for in two weeks. Both have good aspects about them, she said.
DeRienz said Murphy, whose mother was a school teacher, focused on education issues during his roughly 15-minute address to the teachers. McMahon on the other hand talked more generally about her life story before spending a few minutes explaining her six-point jobs plan.
Murphy seemed more familiar with the problems facing retired teachers, DeRienz said.
“I think he understands us more. He’s more knowledgeable of the issue. But it’s a positive on her part in admitting she didn’t know everything about it and would still look into it and learn more,” she said.
DeRienz, whose husband died, has been directly impacted by the pension offset. She wasn’t able to access spousal benefits because her teacher pension was larger.
“I’m paying in full and I’m getting less back,” she said.
DeRienz and the other retired teachers got to hear some of the two candidates’ thoughts on education and teaching in general.
During her prepared remarks, McMahon told the retired teachers that she first got involved in education issues when she reached out to former Gov. M. Jodi Rell regarding the state’s achievement gap. Rell later appointed her to the state Board of Education, where she served for one year before retiring to campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2010.
“I can’t tell you how passionate I am about education and know that it is the best tool that we have to lift our students out of poverty,” McMahon said, adding that her plan will help students find jobs after they’re educated.
Murphy told the group that the best and brightest students should be encouraged to become teachers, but that may not be happening anymore because there is too much negative energy being directed at teachers by politicians.
“Maybe it’s just because of who I am and who I’m surrounded by and the fact that if I didn’t stick up for teachers my mother wouldn’t let me come home for Sunday dinner… But I’m going to celebrate who you are, what you’ve done and what those who have come after you can do,” Murphy said.