A push to force Lincoln and Omaha to make significant changes to their pension plans for new police and fire employees met firm opposition from union leaders and some city officials during a legislative hearing Tuesday.
But the proposal's backers called it essential to ensuring the state's two largest cities meet their obligations to cops and firefighters going forward.
"It is not my intent to take any retirement benefits away from current plan members," said state Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, the measure's sponsor. "In fact, my motive for introducing this bill in to ensure that the current plan members receive what they've been promised."
Kolterman's bill (LB30) would require the cities to swap their traditional defined-benefit pension plans for cash-balance plans, which include features of a 401(k), for future police and fire employees.
Both Lincoln and Omaha's pensions took significant hits during the Great Recession, and the cities have struggled to keep their plans fully funded. But both have made some recent progress.
In Lincoln's case, changes made last year improved its plan from being just 63 percent funded to nearly 80 percent funded.
Ron Trouba, president of the Lincoln Firefighters Association, said Kolterman's bill "would not only be a solution in search of a problem, but it would actually create many new and additional problems."
Lincoln would still need to take steps to protect pensions under its legacy defined-benefit plan, and the new plan would damage recruiting efforts and force members to make significantly higher contributions.
Omaha's police and fire chiefs opposed the bill, as did union officials from both cities. Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler submitted a letter in a neutral capacity because the bill doesn't specify the exact details of the cash-balance plan or how it would impact the city.
Supporters of Kolterman's bill, who have pushed for similar changes in other states, said Lincoln and Omaha's efforts to prop up their plans amount to "triage" and questioned whether their gains will continue without pumping in additional property tax dollars.
Kolterman blamed the cities for not meeting their annual funding obligations.
"To a certain extent, shame on them," he said.
Others suggested there are better ways for state lawmakers to get involved, such as requiring the cities to meet their funding obligations or reforming the state Commission on Industrial Relations, which resolves government disputes with public-sector unions.
"This bill feels like it's doing something to the city instead of doing something with the city," said Lincoln City Councilman Roy Christensen.