Monday, March 07, 2005

Senators defend LANL pensions; express concern

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Los Alamos Monitor
Headline News
Senators defend LANL pensions; express concern

ROGER SNODGRASS, roger@lamonitor.com, Monitor Assistant Editor

New Mexico's two senators were on the same page Friday, joining to issue a single set of comments to the most recent revisions of the Department of Energy's request for proposals on managing Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The senators were not satisfied with Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman's answers to their questions during a committee hearing on the administration's budget request for the department in Washington Thursday.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-NM, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, the two top leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee with jurisdiction over DOE, objected particularly to the idea of a stand-alone benefits and pension plan for LANL employees.

The idea was included in white papers prepared by the Source Evaluation Board (SEB) overseeing the competition process. The white papers were intended to respond to a first round of comments on the draft request for proposals.

The first draft drew criticism from LANL employees and expressions of concern from the senators that employee pensions were not adequately protected.

Now, the senators rejected the procurement committee's suggestion that the winning bidder would create a separate corporate entity to carry out the contract.

Such a move, the senators say, could push senior weapons designers into retirement, in order to lock in current benefits, while deterring younger scientists from seeking employment at LANL.

A management mechanism in the previous draft described a process for adjusting lab pensions closer to prevailing compensation at other DOE laboratories.

Since LANL employees under the University of California pension plan receive pensions well above average, a leveling could only mean a reduction.

The revised RFP language would still apply the leveling influence, but over a period of time established by the contracting officer.

In a joint letter to Bodman Friday, the deadline for submitting comments, the two Senators insisted that the National Nuclear Security Administration that manages the nuclear complex for DOE "not foreclose the option of continuing the existing benefits plan or allowing the new contractor to utilize the existing plan."

The senators called for flexibility and preserving options. They criticized "competition at any cost."

They wrote, "We believe the best way for the SEB to guarantee that employees receive 'substantially equivalent' benefits would be to allow existing employees to remain within the University of California Retirement Plan."

Following the current course outlined in the RFP, the senators estimated for the first time, could add $100 million per year to the lab's overhead, an increase that runs counter to the FY 2006 budget request which proposes precisely the opposite funding, a reduction of $500 million over the next five years.

"We hope the SEB will publish a Final RFP that will not: reduce employee compensation and retirement benefits, reduce the mandate to support world-class scientific research, or increase operating costs to a level that cannot be supported with the budget," they concluded.

The senators did find positive features in the proposed modifications, including the 180-day contract extension that will be requested, in order to provide adequate time for the winning bidder to prepare pension and benefit plans that meet the contracting officers approval and allows employees enough time during the transition to evaluate any changes and differentials.

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