By Stephen Singer
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Dorry Clay, a small-business owner unable to save for retirement, is counting on the Connecticut legislature to establish a state-run retirement savings account accessible to millions of workers.
Lawmakers in Connecticut and other states are responding to a widespread loss of private-sector pensions, a lack of access to employer-sponsored retirement accounts in smaller businesses and stagnant incomes that make it hard for workers to contribute to their own retirement plan or company account.
The measures vary in their details, but the general aim is to establish a retirement fund in a state agency that would collect employee contributions, invest the money and pay out benefits when employees retire.
Financial services businesses are fiercely lobbying to defeat the proposals, calling the proposed state-run enterprises unnecessary and a threat to private business. Opponents have already claimed one victory this year, knocking off a public retirement system proposed in the West Virginia Legislature.
Clay, 54, says her savings ran out after she lost a job and was diagnosed with cancer. Now, as a business owner, she says she has "no feasible way" to save for retirement and worries she'll have to work into her 70s.
"You can do everything right, go to school, be talented, work and things happen," she said.
Catherine Ernsky, president of the Connecticut financial planning firm Ernsky Group, said financial planning services can tailor retirement plans without the state's help.
Business lobbyists are also fighting the proposal, with the Connecticut Business and Industry Association putting the legislation at the top of its list of legislative targets. Lou Tashash, owner and president of R-D Manufacturing, a precision sheet manufacturer employing 14 workers in East Lyme, sees it as a burdensome mandate.
"We already have a system in place that Connecticut is proposing. It's called Social Security," he said. "Why does the state feel it has to do something that's already on the federal level?"
Details are still being worked out before Connecticut's legislative session ends at midnight Wednesday. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy supports the ideals behind the bill, a spokesman says, but his administration is negotiating with legislative leaders "on the best way forward."
Republican state Sen. Joe Markley called the legislation "paternalistic overreach" and "one of the worst ideas" in this year's legislative session.
"We have to ask ourselves if it's government's place to force people to save for retirement," he said.
West Virginia Delegate Doug Reynolds, who sponsored legislation that tried to establish a state-administered pension system, said financial planning businesses aren't serving enough workers.
"I don't think the private sector is out there aggressively reaching out," he said.
The legislation passed the West Virginia House of Delegates in February but failed in the Senate.
The average working household has almost no retirement savings, the National Institute on Retirement Security said in a June 2013 report. The median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.
Two-thirds of working households ages 55 to 64 with at least one earner have retirement savings just slightly exceeding their annual income, which the National Institute on Retirement Security says is "far below" what's needed to maintain their standard of living in retirement.
"We feel there is a retirement crisis," said Diane Oakley, executive director of the research group.
Illinois, Indiana, Maine and Washington also considered legislation this year proposing state-sponsored individual retirement accounts for certain private-sector workers. The bills died in Indiana, Maine and Washington.
In Illinois, the state's proposal barely passed the Senate on April 9 and now heads to the House.
"It's not a panacea, but the bill will take a really big bite out of the problem without being a meaningful burden on employers," said state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Ill.