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Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., listens to Dennis Kooren, who chairs the Fargo Pension Protection Committee, during a meeting of the group at Marlin's restaurant in Fargo Tuesday, Aug. 7. Tu-Uyen Tran / Forum News Service

Cramer explains backing Democrats' plan to save pensions

FARGO — Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told an audience of mostly retired truckers Tuesday, Aug. 7, that it wasn't very hard for him to sign onto a bill to save their pensions even though it has the Democrats' thumbprints all over it.

He said he didn't sign onto the bill right away because he wanted to see if Republican colleagues had some ideas. But when none were forthcoming, he said, "the only thing to do is force the issue" by becoming the second Republican to co-sponsor the House version of the bill despite it being a Democratic creation.

One of the authors of the Senate version of the Butch Lewis Act is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Cramer's opponent in the 2018 Senate race.

Cramer, who said he signed onto the bill in January, was speaking to the Fargo Pension Protection Committee, a group of retired truckers, many of them union members.

The retirees told Cramer they fear their pension funds will implode, leaving them destitute in what should be their golden years. The Central States Pension Fund, which they've been paying into for decades, has said it will run out of money "by 2025 or sooner." Many other funds are in trouble as well.

Under the Butch Lewis Act, named after a deceased union member and Vietnam War vet, the federal government would lend the funds money at low interest over the next 30 years.

Cramer said he's told conservative friends that it's easy to blame those running the funds or past administrations that have overseen the funds. But, he said, if they implode, their massive impact will demand a federal response. "If we don't deal with it, we're going to deal with it anyway. There's no way to have a whole bunch of people lose their pension and not have it become some sort of responsibility of the federal government."

Tom Julsrud, who drove trucks and loaded freight, told Cramer the price for his decades as a laborer is a lot of expensive surgeries and the inability to stand or sit for very long. He's had work done on his spine, hip, both knees and both shoulders.

If he lost his pension, he said, he'd be hard-pressed to find a job.

Julsrud is among 2,000 North Dakotans and 400,000 Americans with pensions run by Central States, a multiemployer pension fund run jointly by unions and employers. Central States has said the number of retirees it must pay has grown as baby boomers age, but there are fewer employers and fewer workers paying into the fund. The recession of the late 2000s also destroyed the value of Central States investments.

Heitkamp told the Fargo Pension Protection Committee in April that allowing multiemployer pensions to implode could "take down our economy." Millions of retirees would lose their livelihood, and small businesses that can't easily extricate themselves from the pension funds due to high penalties would also be forced to shutter, she said.

Bob Berg, vice chairman of the Fargo Pension Protection Committee, said it's important to spread the word that saving Central States is not a bailout, but paying workers what they're owed.

Cramer said over and over that he feels the same way. "We're not talking about some sort of a gift. We're talking about compensation for the job that they did, that they were promised when they did it. It would be like not giving them their paycheck at the end of the week."

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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