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Seniors wait for province to rule on access to pensions

By Curtis Brown, Brandon Sun

 August 2, 2003

The longer the issue simmers on the backburner, the more Murray Pushka worries the provincial government will stall on changes which would allow retirees to access more of their pension funds.

Pushka, a former City of Brandon employee, and a group of local seniors have been after the province to start granting full access upon retirement to the 180,000 Manitobans who have Life Income Funds (LIFs) and Locked-In Retirement Funds (LIRFs).

"It's going to die if we leave it. I just want to keep things going. I've spent too much time and money on it," Pushka says.

The Pension Review Commission started reviewing Manitoba's Pension Benefits Act for the first time in 19 years in January, travelling to Brandon and Winnipeg to hear from seniors who were interested in seeing changes to pension rules.

For years, seniors have only been able to take out roughly six per cent of their accumulated locked-in pensions per year, although the government did make an amendment that took effect Dec. 31, 2002 that allows retirees between 55 and 64 to apply and receive a larger portion of their incomes if they had enough income.

Robert Ziegler, the head of the pension commission, will go over the committee's recommendations with interim Labour Minister Steve Ashton later this month.

But until the government decides to make the report public, Ziegler will not comment on his recommended changes.

"I think the government is eager to get on with the issue," says Ziegler, president of Manitoba's United Food and Commercial Workers union.

"I think (Ashton) still wants to get a feeling for it and present it to the rest of cabinet ... I believe they want to act on this quickly."

Hank Monita would like to see the government get it over with and make a decision.

The Westoba Credit Union employee, who is three years away from retirement, wants some indication of what direction the government will go from here.

Saskatchewan recently started allowing people with locked-in pensions to draw the full amount out of their accumulated benefits and Monita would like to see Manitoba do the same.

"Some of us made investment decisions knowing the rules but believing the rules were archaic and would change," says Monita.

"Saskatchewan seems to have led the way. For us to ask what they have, I think, is not unrealistic."

A spokesperson for Ashton, Peter Dalla-Vicenza, says that the minister wants a chance to review the commission's findings before it goes public.

Pushka worries things could be delayed even longer if Ashton ends up leaving the portfolio to someone else, since Ashton is currently the NDP's minister of conservation and Premier Gary Doer is expected to change his cabinet in the fall.

Most of all, he would like to see some options offered to seniors, as he says the delay causes them to put off retirement purchases and plans.

"Give people their choice. People that are retired aren't stupid and they know what they want," says Pushka.

"I can't see any wrongdoing in that."  

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