Friday, February 26, 2010

Fixing the pension crunch before it's too late

Canadians are worrying about pensions these days.

But for the most part, the worrying isn't translating into much constructive action. The B.C. government deserves credit for leading a push to change that.

The concern is understandable. Once people could count on workplace pension plans and basic government pensions to cover a relatively short retirement.

But companies have been getting out of the pension business and trimming benefits. Private pension plan coverage peaked two decades ago; today, only 25 per cent of British Columbians have a workplace plan.

RRSPs were supposed to encourage people to save on their own. But personal savings rates have been falling since 1982. (Although home equity is a source of retirement income for many.)

The core problem is that our system of retirement incomes hasn't evolved with these changes.

Canada's current pension system rests on three pillars.

Basic public pensions are paid from tax revenues and are intended to keep people from the grimmest poverty.

Old age security and the guaranteed income supplement together provide about $1,170 a month for people with no other source of income. (Which is, it's worth noting, about 30 per cent more than a disabled person is supposed to survive on under B.C.'s income assistance program.)

The Canada Pension plan is the second pillar. It provides defined benefits for people who have worked based on their contributions over their careers. The highest benefit is about $935 a month.

Those public pensions are relatively poor compared with other developed countries. But that mattered less when working Canadians could count on a plan through their employer or union and their own savings.

An analysis done last year found middle-income Canadians face the greatest retirement crunch. Poor people experience a relatively small drop in post-retirement income because they already don't have much. Rich people tend to have savings and workplace plans.

Those in the middle face the steepest decline in income.

Time is running out for action. The big bulge of baby boomers is heading toward long retirements.

This is not just a problem for them.

Remember, for example, that the basic old age pension is paid from current tax revenues.

Back in 1971, there were 6.2 British Columbians of working age for every person over 65. Today, the ratio is 4.3 to one. And by 2034, there will be 2.4 people of working age for every person over 65.

So in 1971, six people of working age shared the cost of providing the basic pension for one retiree. In 2034, just 2.4 people will be sharing the cost. That's a greater burden. And the political clout of the baby boom gang could lead them to pressure politicians to bump up pensions at the same time.

Premier Gordon Campbell has promised improvements. In October 2008, he made pension reform the second item in his 10-part plan to respond to the global economic crisis. B.C. was prepared to push ahead on its own if a national agreement couldn't be reached, he said.

Progress has been slow, but that's not surprising. The issues are complex.

Campbell's proposal would see a new voluntary pension plan created. There would be no tax benefits and employers could choose whether to contribute. Pensions would be based on the amount of money contributed.

Which sounds much like an RRSP without the tax breaks.

But there would be advantages. The fund would be managed by existing public sector pension management agencies. That would mean participants would avoid management and sales fees, which can eat up RRSP and mutual fund returns.

And there would be safety and security for people contributing to the plan.

But it's far from the only option. And deciding on the plan is not even the first question. The starting points should be what kind of retirement income are we striving for and how we believe responsibility should be shared.

I'll look at that in a future column - but not until after the budget.

Footnote: The provincial government has started consultations on pension reform. It has useful background here and people have until the end of March to offer comments.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Inside the decision to kick miners out of the Flathead

One of the big throne speech surprises was the promise to ban mining and oil and gas development from the Flathead Valley in the East Kootenay.

The valley is north of the Montana border, beside a U.S. national park. It's the headwaters for the Flathead River, a big deal in Montana. For decades, there has been cross-border wrangling. B.C. wanted the area open for resource activities. Montana wanted it protected.

Now Montana has won.

There are several interesting aspects to this.

First, the decision undermines critics who say the Liberal government is pro-industry. The Mining Association of B.C. called the ban "dismaying," claiming it was unfair political interference. The environmental assessment process should determine whether companies could go ahead with coal, gold and coalbed methane projects, it said, adding that the decision will cost jobs and tax revenue.

Second, it offered a glimpse at how decisions are made. Environmental groups in Montana have been active in calling for a ban. And there has been some high-profile political pressure. U.S. Sen. Max "Blame Canada" Baucus went to a meeting in Fernie in 2005 to oppose coal-mining plans and got a hostile reception from Liberal MLA Bill Bennett.

You can get the tone from Bennett's subsequent legislature speech when he wondered what "unscrupulous, traitorous twit" invited Baucus, who was a big antagonist in the softwood lumber dispute.

But at the same time, Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer was meeting quietly with Premier Gordon Campbell over five years. They came to trust each other, Schweitzer said. They worked hard to keep the talks secret and out of the news. "We were quietly, methodically always moving forward," he told the Flathead Beacon.

Campbell deserves the credit, he said. He kept coming back to the table, even when times got tough.

Third, the politicians' response to the ban highlights interesting differences between the U.S. and Canada.

After the throne speech announcement, Sean Holman of asked Mining Minister Blair Lekstrom if the companies who have leases and had spent money on development would be compensated. At least four companies have provincial permits, leases or claims.

"I'm not at a point where I can speculate," Lekstrom replied.

Which is interesting, Holman noted, as Schweitzer readily confirmed that companies affected by the ban - and similar measures on the U.S. side - would get government compensation.

So did Lekstrom not know about the arrangement? Did the government decide on the ban without knowing if compensation would be paid? Is Campbell the only one who can speak for the government?

Or are they just more open and transparent down there in Montana?

Last week, Campbell said there would be some "minimal" compensation costs.

That too is interesting. Schweitzer seemed to think the costs would be more significant and plans to press the U.S. federal government to contribute to the compensation B.C. has to pay. "The costs are greater on the Canadian side," he said.

Bennett acknowledged some compensation would be paid.

But the companies should have known they were wasting time and money, he said. "So come on, let's be honest about this," he told the Cranbrook Daily Townsman. "There was never going to be a mine in the Flathead Valley and I think people with claims there know it."

But - while stating he didn't think coal mining was a good idea - Bennett had always said the companies' plans would go through the normal approval process.

The government "wouldn't make a simple, unilateral political decisions to just scrap the due process, and to heck with the proponents rights and to heck with the reputation of B.C. to investors from around the world."

Pragmatically the decision makes sense - the opposition to mining in the valley, from both sides of the border, was intense.

And with this action, the government heads off, at least for a while, calls for the Flathead to be included in a park, which would prevent logging, hunting and other activities.

Footnote: Among the companies seeking compensation, reports Gerry Warner of the Daily Townsman, is Teck Corp. The corporation is a major donor to the Liberal party, contributing about $500,000 since 2005. It has eight coal licences in the Flathead and renewed them as recently as 2008.