AARP Pushes for Higher Standards When it Comes to Financial Advisors

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 28, 2015

AARP continues its efforts to push for a proposed U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Fiduciary Rule that would require financial advisors to put their client’s interests first when giving retirement advice.  In advance of last weeks hearing, before the House Education and Workforce Committee, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group delivered nearly 60,000 petitions containing the signatures from every state to support a higher standard in financial advising to prevent conflicts of interest.    .

In a June 16 release, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP stated that the June 27th Congressional hearing only showcased financial firms and their concerns, but did not provide much of an opportunity to hear directly from consumers about how the new proposed rule would benefit them.  But, AARP’s petitions drive should send a powerful message to Congress, that the nonprofit group, representing 37 million older Americans, and 60,000 voters identified on those petitions want to have their voices heard by Congress on this very pressing retirement issue.

When Advising, Do No Harm

“While a number of investment advisers also support a rule requiring advice to be in the best interest of clients, some opponents have recently weighed in with comments that offer time worn code words for harming consumers,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, AARP.  She says that the delivered petitions would ensure “that all, not just some, financial advisers put their clients’ interests first.”

“Many opponents of the proposed new rule, who are asking for delays or say the regulatory costs are too high, are simply looking to protect high fees at the expense of consumers.  But consumers deserve advice in their best interest, not advice that benefits the adviser,” says LeaMond.

In addition to forwarding petitions to the Department of Labor, AARP volunteers continue their efforts to call on Congress to prevent legislation that seeks to stop or slow an updated “best interest” standard.  According to the AARP, “each year hidden fees, unfair risk and bad investment advice rob Americans of $17 billion of retirement income.”

LeaMond says that AARP plans to submit comments to the DOL on the proposed rule in the weeks ahead. The nonprofit group’s petition delivery included over 33,000 signatures and follows an initial petition delivery last month that included over 26,000 signatures that support eliminating conflicts of interest in retirement advice.  “It is important that the Department hear from individuals who are negatively impacted by the current standard, not just financial firms who benefit from it,” she said.

AARP’s petition drive efforts followed President Obama’s February visit to AARP Headquarters where he used the opportunity to publicly support the proposed DOL rule, endorsed by a coalition of aging, labor and consumer groups that limits conflicts of interest, increases accountability, and strengthens protection for Americans receiving retirement investment advice.

At the AARP press event, Obama called for the updating of DOL rules and requirements that would mandate higher standards for financial advisors, requiring them to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving financial advice.

Obama noted that the existing rules governing retirement investments written over 40 years ago “outdated,” filled with “legal loopholes,” and just “fine print,” to be in need of an overhaul.  The existing rules governing retirement investments were written “at a time when most workers with a retirement plan had traditional pensions, and IRAs were brand new, and 401ks didn’t even exist,” said the President.

According to Megan Leonhardt, senior editor for WealthManagement.com, in a June 15th article, “New Coalition Pushes for DOL Fiduciary Rule,” DOL’s proposed rule has “been delayed multiple times since the agency first rolled it out in 2010.  It was expected to be released in August according to the agency’s regulatory agenda, but an update in May pushed back the date to January.”

“Industry lobbyists have mounted significant pushback. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the Financial Services Institute have argued a rule similar to the DOL’s initial proposal could limit the public’s access to quality financial advice,” says Leonhardt.

Acting in the Client’s Best Interest

“Rhode Island has been part of the national effort to move the Labor Department rule forward,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We’ve talked to people who have been quite surprised to know that their savings could be at risk by having an adviser fail to act in their client’s best interest. The response to the petition campaign is a measure of the concern. Retirement planning is daunting for the vast majority of Rhode Islanders. There’s plenty to worry about. Having confidence that your financial adviser is working in your best interest would relieve some of the anxiety.  That’s why there seems to be overwhelming support for the rule change.”

Along with AARP, Rhode Island federal lawmakers are weighing in on this key retirement issue, seeing its importance to older Rhode Islanders.

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) says, “Protecting the financial well-being of our seniors is a top priority for me, and ensuring that they have access to complete and accurate information before making investment decisions is an essential component of that effort.  President Obama and Labor Secretary Perez are leading a good faith effort to protect consumers, including seniors and I look forward to evaluating the final rule after the public comment period ends and I have had the benefit of considering these comments.”

Adds, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D) “Investors should have the security of knowing that the advice they receive is in their best interest.  I applaud the Obama Administration for updating regulations on retirement investments and for working with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure the new rules help Americans save more for retirement.”

For this writer, hiring a financial advisor is like purchasing a used care, that is you always feel that you might have made the wrong decision.   New DOL requires that call for higher standards for financial advisors, who would be required to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving advice, just might give me peace of mind, when planning my retirement…and probably to millions of older Americans, too.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Freelance Economy Can Be Powerful Economic Engine

Published in Pawtucket Times on June 22, 2015

Last week, it took three days for Sign Painter Jayson M. Salvi to put the final touches on the façade of the Camera Werks on Hope St.   As he sat on the pavement printing the signage, passerbuyers would stop and chat, admiring his craft.

For the 41-year-old Salvi, his passion for sign painting began in high school, ultimately continuing in his eight year stint in the U.S. Navy.  Salvi says that he usually ended up painting logos and signs on doors wherever he was assigned.

With an honorable discharge from the Navy in 2000 and a degree in business administration he earned at Norfolk University while serving in the military, Salvi came to Providence to be near family.  He began his sign painting business at the former Providence-based Tazza Restaurant after an unsuccessful venture in the candle making business, followed by several retail jobs.  Word of mouth advertising about his artistic talent led to more freelance painting opportunities at the Trinity Brew House, RISD’s Second Life, a nonprofit student run recycling material center, and the Camera Werks, to name a few.

Working a full-time retail job pays for his health insurance, for him and his wife, Kate, a self employed photographer and card designer.     Salvi estimates that he pulls in around $30,000 a year from his freelancing.  “Try buying a Cadillac with that,” he says.  But in a blink of an eye he would leave retail forever to make a living from full-time sign painting, he says. “Self employed people do whatever they need to do to pay the bills to do the things they love to do,” he says.

Spotlight on Rhode Island Freelances

According to federal census data released last month, Salvi and his wife join over 73,700 sole proprietors in Rhode Island who earned a total of over $3.3 billion in annual income. These Ocean State residents are self-employed, sole proprietors, freelancers, independent contractors and non-employee small businesses, says Olon Reeder, of Olon Reeder Associates, a public relations consulting firm that represents self employed clients.  .

The federal census data, culled from 2013 sole proprietor income tax filings from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, indicate that the top work performed by Rhode Island’s self employed workers included Professional/Technical/Scientific services; Other Non-Governmental services; Real Estate; Construction; and Health and Social services, says Reeder.

Reeder, 56, states that despite an improving jobs market in Southern New England [the latest state unemployment numbers drop to 5.9 percent, the lowest since 2007], it’s still very difficult for many unemployed Rhode Islanders to get back to full-time work.  But, the Ocean State has been able to maintain stable job growth, in particular, the state’s freelance workforce, says the North Providence resident and businessman.

Reeder, who has been a public relations consultant for almost 28 years, notes that many sole proprietors active in Rhode Island are “baby boomers” aged 50 and over that are turning to freelance work full time because they were laid off from regular work or early retirees; are encoring into lifelong ambitions they feel are essential in the marketplace; or are working for themselves out of necessity due to long term unemployment.

Nationally, the latest Census Data figures report that for 2013 there were 23 million Americans working solo earning $1 trillion in receipts, that’s up from 2011 figures, which showed at that time there were only 22.5 million people who worked for themselves and collectively earned at that time $989.6 billion, says Reeder..

”The latest figures, from 2013, also show that Rhode Island’s sole proprietors had receipts of $3.3 billion.,” Reeder adds, noting that when compared to similar numbers from 2011, self employment increased by 700 jobs over the last three years (over 200 annually) and income went up by $2 million over the last three years (over $300 thousand annually).

Interestingly, next door in Massachusetts, self employment went dramatically down in the “Bay State,” as Federal figures indicated that only 263,500 freelance workers in 2013, compared to the 471,800 solo workers employed in 2011. Earnings for Massachusetts independents also fell in 2013, with only $15.2 million in receipts, compared to $24.4 million in 2011, he said.

“Finally, Rhode Island has something we do best when it comes to our self-employed workers,” he says, noting that the state now rates better than its next door neighbor. “It’s something we can boast about,” he says.

Self-Employed, an Economic Engine

State and local politicians tend to focus their energy on attracting large companies to the state [like 38 Studios], but tend to ignore the self-employed, charges Reeder, a long time tireless and passionate advocate for self-employed workers.  “The self employed are a powerhouse that can no longer be ignored and must be reckoned with,” he says.

“Rhode Island’s self employed are a best kept secret that need to be taken advantaged of to improve our state’s long tern economic development and quality of life,”  says Reeder.  “Very few businesses create over 200 jobs a year and pay per capita per sole proprietor an average of over $44,000 a year. This is how the freelance economy is changing our lives,” he says.

With the ending of this years’ legislative session, Reeder calls on lawmakers to look down the road to investing in state’s self-employed work force.  Usually the General Assembly tackles the tax code to make it more business-friendly for large corporations or targeted industries without considering providing incentives or tax incentives to the state’s self employed.

Like previous years, Reeder opposes any revisiting of placing fees or expansion of sales taxes on services provided by the self-employed.   “There must be a level playing field for all business,” he says, ‘everyone should be treated equally.”.

Reeder believes Rhode Island has become a leader in growing its free lance work force and this could just become a powerful economic engine to revitalize the state’s  sputtering economy.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

 

Rhode Island General Assembly Seeks to Assist State’s Caregivers

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 14, 2015

With the graying of America’s population, the profile of the typical family caregiver has changed, says a new report released by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. The findings trouble aging advocates who warn that as care givers age they require more long term care support and community based care services.

Taking a Look at Today’s Caregiver

The report, “Caregiving in the United States 2015,” tells us that the “typical” family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman who takes care of a relative, caregivers on the whole are becoming as diverse as America’s population.

According to the 81 page report, today’s family caregiver also provides unpaid care for at least 21 hours a week, and has been care giving for an average of 5-1/2 years.  These individuals expect to continue providing care to their loved ones for another 5 years. Nearly half of these higher-hour caregivers report high emotional stress (46 percent), too.

Men, often stereotyped as failing to take on caregiving responsibilities, currently represent a whopping 40 percent of family caregivers, also providing an average of 23 hours a week being a caregiver to their loved ones, adds the report.

The study’s data indicates that today nearly a quarter of the nation’s caregivers are millennials between the ages of 18 and 34 and they are equally likely to be male or female. On the other end of the spectrum, 75 and older caregivers are typically the sole support for their loved one, providing care without paid help or assistance from relatives and friends.

Meanwhile, caregivers, with an average household income of $45,700, tell the researchers that they are not only emotionally strained, but financial strained as well. These higher-hour older caregivers report difficulty in finding affordable care giving services, such as delivered meals, transportation, or in-home health services, in their community, for themselves and their loved ones.

The report also notes that “Caregivers of a close relative—like a spouse or a parent—who are likely to provide care for 21 hours or more, indicate that being noted as a family caregiver in the medical records of the care recipient would be helpful in managing their caregiving responsibilities.”

Finally, the study’s findings indicate that caregivers who live more than an hour away from their care recipient also report higher levels of financial strain (21 percent), perhaps because 4 out of 10 long-distance caregivers report the use of paid help (41 percent).

Report Calls for Supporting Caregiver Needs

As previous AARP research has shown, we’re facing a caregiving cliff,” said Dr. Susan Reinhard, senior vice president and director, AARP Public Policy Institute; and chief strategist, Center to Champion Nursing in America. “By mid-century, there will be only three family caregivers available for each person requiring care. That means, to avoid putting them at higher risk as they age, we need to provide support for existing caregivers who are underserved by the current long-term services and support system.”

We’re especially concerned that not enough is being done to support family caregivers in the public or private sector as they age,” says Gail Gibson Hunt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Caregiving. “There’s a double-edged sword when we fail to support caregivers, because we put both the caregiver and the care recipient at risk,” she warns.

Hunt observes, “Rhode Island is a unique state in that it has the highest percentage of persons over age 85. The data in this report speaks to some of the challenges of a graying population, particularly the needs of caregivers who are 75 or older.”

“We know from the data that the ‘typical’ caregiver over 75 is caring for a spouse or close relative, and spends about 34 hours a week providing care. This can be extremely challenging for an older person who may be managing their own mobility and health issues, as they help a loved one with basic needs like bathing or everyday tasks like grocery shopping,” said Hunt.

Hunt says, “Rhode Island has an opportunity to continue supporting older people and their caregivers, who are also growing older and need care.”

Lawmakers Posed to Pass Caregiver Law

           In June 4th, the Senate passed SB 481 A, the CARE (Caregiver Advise, Record  and Enable) Act, to provide caregivers with timely information to allow them to provide post-discharge care.  The House Chamber passed its measure, HB 6150 Sub A on June 10th.  Both chambers must now approve the legislation from the opposite chamber.  If passed, they go to the Governor for approval.  This legislation will be invaluable to the state’s 148,000 caregivers who provided 142 million hours of care for loved ones.

“We are delighted that – upon the CARE Act becoming law – Rhode Island will join seven other states that  have enacted CARE Act legislation, with bills in three other states awaiting their respective Governor’s signatures,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell.

“Together, AARP worked with a strong coalition of stakeholders, as well as the House and Senate sponsors, Representative Eileen Naughton, and Senator Gayle Goldin, and the members of the House’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee and the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee,“ notes Connell.

“The passage of the CARE Act dovetails with the release of “Caregiving in the United States 2015,” which  presents a portrait of unpaid family caregivers today. It specifically addresses vulnerable groups of caregivers who face complex, high burden care situations. They tend to be older caregivers, who had no other option but to take on caregiving duties.” adds Connell.

Connell says, “It is sobering to conclude that in Rhode Island, with its above-average older population, we risk seeing more and more of old sick people caring for older sicker people. Clearly, that’s not a good thing and it needs addressing sooner than later.”

“One thing we noticed as the CARE Act made its way through the General Assembly was that a number of lawmakers shared their own personal caregiving stories. Some issues are harder to personally identify with than others, but when it comes to caregiving, it’s good to know we have this kind of attention. The report adds data and statistics that should help frame solutions,” says Connell.

 

Director Charles Fogarty, who oversees the state’s Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA), sees the value of AARP’s report highlighting the “critical role” of caregivers taking care of their loved one.  “Family support is essential to allow seniors to stay in their own homes and live as independently as possible, he says, noting that federal funds allows DEA to administer respite and care giver support programs.

“As the baby boomer generation ages, DEA will continue to seek out resources that provide support to family members who care for their loved one,” says Fogarty.

The CARE Act can provide assistance to those tirelessly care for their aged or disabled loved ones.   Kudos for the Rhode Island General Assembly giving them the tools to do a better job.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

Bridging the Generations Through Multi-generational Trips

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 24, 2015

        For America’s 76 million baby boomers who spend $120 billion annually in leisure travel, three generation family vacations, including kids, parents, aunts/uncles and grandparents, are becoming a popular way to bond and create lasting memories, says a new AARP study about travel patterns of age 45 and over persons.

Researchers say that “a multi-generational trip is not typically inspired by a special event, but rather a desire to spend quality time together as a family.”  Although grandparents are more likely to pick up the tab for the trip, typically each family pays for their own expenses, they note.  Eighty one percent of travelers stayed at the same accommodation with their entire family.

The February 2015 research study on Multi-Generational Travel, offers insights into multi-generational vacations including why families are going, where they’re going, what they do on these family vacations, the challenges to plan them and why they create memories of a lifetime.

“Multi-generational family travel is becoming the new trend in family vacations. Our AARP 2015 Travel Trends found initial evidence that they would be popular in 2015 and now we know why,” said Stephanie Miles, Vice President, Member Value, AARP. “Our multi-generational travel research found 98 percent of travelers who took a multi-generational trip were highly satisfied and 85 percent are planning to take another one in the next 12 months.”

According to the study’s findings, 80 percent of the respondents traveled domestically in the U.S. and many chose active cities, beaches, amusement parks (Disney, too).  Also, California and Hawaii were two popular states to visit.  Domestic generational trips usually spans from 4 to 7 days.

Twenty percent traveled internationally with half heading to the Caribbean, Mexico or South America, says the findings.  Cruising is also a popular way to vacation for 25 percent of international travelers.  But, almost 40 percent chose nostalgic destinations to share a childhood memory.

The study finds that regardless of the location of the multi-generational trip, “dining out is the primary activity that engages the whole group.” While selecting and planning a trip may challenging, especially choosing the travel date, 98 percent of the multi-generational travelers were satisfied with their most recent trip.

Researchers found that traveling with parents, kids and grandparents can be positive in many ways.  Eighty three percent say that the trip brings the entire family together, while 69 percent stressed it helped to build special memories.  Fifty percent of the respondents noted that they were able to spend time with grandkids and 36 percent note the quality one-on-one time with family/spouse experienced during traveling.  Twenty nine percent say there were benefits of adult relatives spending time with younger generations.

The new research conducted by AARP Travel offers valuable insights into multi-generational travel, findings that Collette certainly can relate to, says Amelia Sugerman, Communications & Public Relations for Pawtucket-based Collette, a third-generation family-owned travel company.  “Over the past five years, Collette has witnessed an increase in family travel by about 20%,” she says, noting that this might be tied to age 65 and older adults who feel an urgent need to create ever lasting memories with their families.

“In a day and age where text messaging and face time has become the norm, it’s a unique chance to spend quality time together as one unit.  Although we do agree that bringing the family together and helping to build memories are top benefits of multi-generational travel, we have also identified many families who use the experience to celebrate a momentous occasion or event, says Sugerman, noting that the AARP study did not find special events triggering the planning of a Multi-Generation Vacation.

An older traveler, who took Collette’s National Parks tour, recently shared the details why this trip was so important to her family.  “My husband and I are getting older. Of course we think about the time we have left to spend with our grandchildren. This experience was the perfect way to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.”

Like many of Collette’s older travelers, this customer was ambivalent about the destination. adds Sugerman, noting that the older couple did not want to travel too far and wanted everyone to enjoy themselves, but the experiences were far more important than the sights of the destination.”

Sugerman says the benefits of touring organized by companies like Collette, is that guests of all ages can have a great experience and no one has to worry about the details of planning.  This reflects findings in the AARP study that found 20 percent of families identify the task of coordinating the trip to be the toughest.

“Guided travel takes the guess work out of it [traveling] and leaves valuable time for guests to simply enjoy their time together, says Sugerman.

Don’t forget to document your family multigenerational trips, suggests Patricia S. Zacks, proprietor of the Camera Werks, on Hope Street in Providence.   “While it’s trendy to be taking pictures on your cell phone or selfies documenting your vacation, people tend not to print these pictures,” she says, noting that statistics indicate that these pictures stay on a disk or memory card.

Taking special pictures of your family members on a trip will give you images that you can look at and reflect on, says Zacks. ‘There is nothing more special to look at than a 100 year old printed photo.  The younger generation geared to cell phones won’t have this experience.

For more information about Multi-Generational Travel vacations, go to http://www.gocollette.com

For details on planning a stress free family vacation, go to travel.aarp.org/articles-tips/articles/info-10-2013/how-to-plan-a-stressfree-multigenerational-trip.html.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Military Recognition Long Over Due for Shemin and Johnson

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 7, 2015

             Almost a century ago when they fought in the bloody battlefields on Europe’s Western Front, and over four years after the passing of Frank Buckles, America’s last doughboy in 2011, America’s Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama presented the nation’s highest military honor to two long-deceased World War I veterans.  .

At White House ceremony, held on June 2, President Barack Obama recognized the acts of valor of Army Private Henry Johnson, an African-American, and Sgt. William Shemin, who was Jewish.  “It’s never too late to say thank you,” the President told the attendees, including 66 surviving Shemin family members.

“It has taken a long time for Henry Johnson and William Shemin to receive the recognition they deserve,” the President said, at the formal ceremony to posthumously award the Medal of Honor to the two World War I infantry soldiers for their gallantry and “personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty.”

Johnson and Shemin fought in France and risked their lives to save others, Obama said, stressing that America “is the country we are today” because they “rose to meet their responsibilities and then went beyond.”

The President said, “The least we can do is to say: We know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.”

Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Johnson, an Albany, New York, resident enlisted in the Army and was assigned to one of the few units that accepted African-Americans, Company C, 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment – an all-black National Guard unit known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” that later became the 369th Infantry Regiment.  Ultimately, the regiment was deployed in 1918, and Johnson’s unit brigaded with a French army colonial unit ending up at the western edge of the Argonne Forest in France’s Champagne region.

In the pitch black, pre-dawn hours, in “No Man’s Land,” Johnson, who had worked before the war as a chauffeur, soda mixer, laborer in a coal yard and redcap porter at Albany’s Union Station, was credited with helping fight off at least 12 soldiers of a German raiding party despite being wounded and protecting Sentry Needham Roberts, from capture, May 15, 1918.

.            According to Obama, “Johnson fired until his rifle was empty; he and Roberts threw grenades and both of them were hit, with Roberts losing consciousness, As the enemy tried to carry away Roberts, Johnson fought back. After his gun jammed, he used it and a Bolo knife to take down the enemy and protect Roberts from capture.”  Johnson’s bravery ultimately would bring a cache of weapons and supplies to the allies and keep the Germans from gaining valuable intelligence information.

While Johnson was one of the first Americans to receive France’s highest award for valor [the Croix de Guerre with Gold Palm] for his bravery in battle] “his own nation didn’t award him anything – not even the Purple Heart, though he had been wounded 21 times,” Obama said.

At the ceremony, Obama also awarded the Medal of Honor to Shemin, a rifleman to Company G, 47th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces, in France.

Shemin, a former semi-pro baseball player and ranger who worked as a forester in Bayonne, New Jersey, repeatedly exposed himself in combat to heavy machine gun and rifle fire to rescue wounded troops during the Aisne-Marne offensive in France, between Aug. 7 and Aug. 9, 1918.

“After platoon leaders had become casualties, Shemin took command and displayed initiative under fire, until he was wounded by shrapnel and a machine gun bullet that was lodged behind his left ear,” said Obama.

Following three months of hospitalization for his injuries, he was transferred to light duty and served in the Army occupation in Germany and Belgium.  Shemin received the Purple Heart. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for battlefield valor, Dec. 29, 1919.

An Act of Congress

It took over five years to get Shemin’s Distinguished Service Cross upgraded to a Medial of Honor,  says Col. Erwin A. Burtnick, (Ret.), who chairs the Awards for Valor Committee, of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish War Veterans of the United States (JWV). Elsie Shemin-Roth, had approached JWV with her father’s records, asking the organization for a review.

Burtnick says, Shemin-Ross, a Missouri resident, grew up hearing stories from her father and those who served with him about how anti-Semitism played a role in preventing his recommendation for receiving the Medal of Honor.  From the documents submitted and a review of other Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor citations from World War I, the retired colonel felt strongly that if the Jewish soldier had been recommended for the Medal of Honor he would most likely had received it.  .

With a federal law required to allow Jewish World War I veterans to receive the Medal of Honor (current law mandates that it must be awarded within five years of when the heroic act being recognized took place), Burtnick asked Shemin-Roth, to help get the ball rolling by contacting Rep. Blaine Luekemeyer (R-MO). whose office ultimately drafted the initial legislation, the William Shemin World War I Veterans Act.

Burtnick provided advice in drafting the proposed legislation. Initially introduced in 2010 it was not enacted.  However, the legislation along with a companion measure in the Senate introduced by Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) passed and became part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012.  However, due to a technical requirement additional legislation was placed in the NDAA of  2015, which allowed the President to award the Medal of Honor to Shemin without regard to the five-year limitation.

.           Meanwhile, Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) spearheaded Congressional efforts to get Johnson his Medal of Honor. He knew that the nation’s highest military award had long been denied due to racism, but he knew that the African-American deserved recognition for his “bravery and heroism” during World War I.

The New York Senator submitted a nearly-1,300 page request to the military in support of Johnson’s receiving the Medal of Honor and launched an online petition to build public support. The Senator also made a personal call with U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh, met with Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright – who oversees decisions regarding Medals of Honor – and wrote a letter to Secretary Hagel, all in an effort to secure the Medal of Honor for Private Johnson.

Senator Schumer, the author of the legislation with the assistance of RR and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), successfully pushed for an amendment to be also included in the NDAA of 2015 (NDAA), which also waived the timing restrictions on the Medal of Honor and enabled the President to consider the Medal of Honor request.  With Obama’s pen stroke, Johnson got his Medal of Honor, too.

At the ceremony, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, New York National Guard senior enlisted advisor, accepted the medal on Johnson’s behalf. Soldiers from the 369th were among the attendees.  There are no family members left to accept the prestigious military award.

“It’s a blessing; it’s an honor; it’s a good thing that Henry Johnson is finally being recognized as a hero,” Wilson said.

Burtnick, came to the White House to see Shemin receive his Medal of Honor and attended a Pentagon enshrinement for the World War I soldier in the Hall of Heroes.  “I was elated that our efforts came to fruition, It took over five years to complete,” he says, acknowledging that he had fulfilled a pledge to Shemin-Ross when he first contacted her, to meet someday at the White House.  “I was happy to see her and she was happy to see me,” he says.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

Rhode Island Lawmakers Poised to Give Retirees Financial Tax Relief

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 31, 2015

During the 2014 legislation session, Rep. Robert E. Craven, (District 32) introduced and successfully pushed for passage in the General Assembly. This legislative proposal would ultimately being signed into law by the Governor. Little did the North Kingston law maker realize that door knocking to get reelected in last November’s election would give him an issue to tackle on Smith Hill this year.

At hundreds of homes, he heard the same issue from his older constituents. One such comment was etched sharply in Craven’s memory: “You’re a nice guy, buy I am not going to vote for you because I am leaving the state, the older voter told him. The puzzled lawmaker asked “why?” The response, “We decided the state is so expensive to live in because of taxes we’re going to sell our house and move to Florida. Wanting the specifics, Craven asked, what specific tax bothers you? “We are only of a few states that tax social security benefits, that’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said the older voter.

Craven’s legislative proposal, H 5000, was heard Wednesday night before the House Finance Committee. Strongly supported by House leadership, he says, the legislation would ease the tax burdens on Rhode Island retirees by exempting them from paying state income tax all Social Security benefits as well as income received from federal, state and local government retirement plans, disability benefits, military pensions and private pension plans and deferred-compensation plans.

Among its more than 40 co-sponsors are Rep. Stephen M. Casey (D-Dist. 50, Woonsocket), Rep. Michael A. Morin (D-Dist. 49, Woonsocket), Rep. Samuel A. Azzinaro (D-Dist. 37, Westerly) and Rep. Cale P. Keable (D-Dist. 47, Burrillville, Glocester).

If enacted, Rhode Island would join 27 other states – including Massachusetts and Maine – and the District of Columbia that specifically exempt Social Security income from taxation. (Although Rhode Island does not specifically tax Social Security benefits, that income is identified on federal tax returns. Since Rhode Island’s income tax is based on the federal adjusted gross income of federal tax form filers, the end result is that Rhode Island generates a portion of its income tax collections from Social Security benefits.)

According to Craven, his legislative proposal would financially benefit Rhode Island seniors who receive retirement benefits. ”After paying into the Social Security system their entire working lives, or putting a little money away into private pension plans, or working at jobs that provide them with a pension, it doesn’t seem right that retirees are having taxes eat away at benefits they depend on for their very livelihood,” he says.

“Retirees living on a fixed income are probably more severely impacted by taxes and tax increases than other population groups,” observes Craven. “If we are committed to helping retirees have a safe and secure life in their later years, and if we want to help seniors afford to stay in Rhode Island rather than moving to more tax-friendly locations, we need to ease their financial burdens. Exempting retirement income from the state income tax is one step we should take,” he adds.

Tax Exemption in House Budget

Weaving its way through the legislative process Craven ultimately expects his legislative proposal to be modified to not give older tax payers a complete exemption on paying taxes for their social security income. Specifically, the revised language would say, “If your house hold income is under $100,000 or less than your Social Security is tax exempt from state income taxation.”

While a Senate companion measure has been introduced by Senator Walter S. Felag, Jr., representing Bristol, Tiverton and Warren, an amended H 5000 will be placed in the House Budget because of its cost, says Craven.

The price tag could be between $30 and $35 million, Craven says, noting that better than expected revenues enable it to be funded. “It’s a priority to the state’s economic recovery, he says.

Older retirees, making from $35,000 to $100,000, from Social security and their pensions, will just put their dollars in the local economy, adds Craven. “It’s a good investment and we owe it to them. These retirees have been here all their lives, he says, noting that they ask very little for benefits from municipalities. “They have a lot of time on their hands to volunteer [in their communities] and are very philanthropically included in offering money and services to charities.”

Says House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, “Representative Craven’s bill to exempt the state tax on Social Security will be included as part of the budget that the House Finance Committee will be considering within the next few weeks. Governor Raimondo included this exemption for low-wage earners in her original budget proposal, but the House will be broadening it to assist the middle-class retirees as well. The House budget exempts retirees, age 65 and over, who have income thresholds of up to $80,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint tax filers.”

“We believe that by incorporating Rep. Craven’s bill into the budget, this will begin to stop the exodus of retirees leaving Rhode Island for many other states where there is no state tax on Social Security benefits,” adds Mattiello.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo sees Social Security is a key source of income for older Rhode Islanders, noting that her submitted March budget proposal eliminates state taxes on Social Security benefits for low and middle income seniors “to help them make ends meet and stimulate our economy.”
With Rhode Island unions hit hard by the state’s recent pension reform, Craven’s proposal has received thumbs up from some.

James Parisi, field representative and lobbyist for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, says his union supports Craven’s legislative proposal. “Unlike some other tax cut proposals introduced this session, his bill includes state and local government pension benefits. About half of the state’s teachers were never eligible to participate in social security so any tax cut proposal that is limited exclusively to social security benefits would be unfair to thousands of retired public school teachers,” he says.

Jim Cenerini, a lobbyist for Council 94, AFSCME also says his union is squarely behind H 5000. “Council 94 believes that legislation deserves careful consideration and support because: many other states provide some type of income tax exemption to retirement benefits/Social Security; in 2014 Kiplinger ranked Rhode Island as one the least tax friendly states for retirees; and since a significant majority of public employees remain in Rhode Island, and contribute to our local economy by spending on goods and services, it’s important to provide an incentive to remain in-state.”

A Final Note…
Other legislation proposals have also been thrown into the legislative hopper this session to protect older taxpayers. H 5446, introduced by Woonsocket law maker Rep. Stephen M. Casey, would protect the pocket books of retired teachers who are receiving a pension from Massachusetts. “These retirees, whose pension are overseen by Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System, are essentially double taxed because of the state’s tax code,” he says.

On Friday, May 29, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) issued a report noting that the state may have significantly more funds available in fiscal 2015 and 2016 than anticipated when Gov. Raimondo submitted her budget in March. Specifically, state revenues are expected to be up by $106.8 million this year and $36.6 million next year, with additional funds available from expenditure reductions.

For this writer, its sound public policy to use some of the anticipated surplus identified in RIPEC’s report to enact H 5000 and H 5446 to lessen the tax burdens of Rhode Island’s retirees. As mentioned earlier, older taxpayers pull less resources from their cities and towns. But, most important, these retirees have greatly contributed to the quality of life in their communities throughout their working years.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Sensible Advice from Seasoned Folk to the Class of 2015  

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 17, 2015 — Updated

This month, notable and professionally successful commencement speakers are again gathering at the nation’s Colleges and Universities to give the robed graduating Class of 2015 seniors’ practical tips and advice as to how to have a rewarding personal and professional life.  High profile speakers cam oftentimes translate into big bucks for speaking fees but these widely recognized speakers can bring prestige to the educational institutions.

CNN.web has announced the this year’s high profile speakers for the upcoming commencement season. According to website, like every year these speakers are politicians, journalists, military leaders, entertainers and business CEOs.  Here’s a sampling: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Oscar winning actors, Anthony Hopkins and Denzel Washington, Novelist and Essayist Author Salmon Rushdie, Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” and Journalist Katie Couric.

May be its time to end the practice of bringing in high-paid commencement speakers.  For this writer, regular folks will do.  Below you might just see many potential commencement speakers, just waiting for the 10 minutes of fame to stand before hundreds of graduating seniors to give their “pearls of wisdom” on living a better life. You may not recognize them on the street, but many in their community know who they are for their achievements of making their Cities and Towns a better place to live.  While not high-profile, through life’s experiences honed every day at work or in their personal worlds, they can give Rhode Island’s college graduates sound, practical advice, to live in a very challenging, and changing world.

Charles Bakst, 71, Providence, retired Providence Journal political columnist. “Stand for something and act upon it.Don’t assume someone else already has done it or will do it.  Work to advance yourself but remember there are plenty of people, even right here in Rhode Island, who have not had the advantages you’ve had. They could use a break too. Help them.”

Dave Barber, 60, East Greenwich, Reporter Capitol Television RI State House. “It’s attitude, not aptitude that will determine your altitude.  There is nothing that will serve you better in the future than a positive mental attitude.  There are two days in life that never exist; yesterday and tomorrow. Yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery. Live in the moment. Exercise gratitude and kindness in all that you do because there has never been a statue erected of a critic.”

Rick Roth, 61, Cambridge, MA, Owner of Mirror Image.  “Read because if you don’t know anything you are no good to yourself or anybody else and reading is the key to gaining knowledge.  When you are talking (particularly about yourself) you can’t listen. You learn by listening. Try to make the world a better place Pursuit of money is an empty pursuit and will leave you unhappy and dissatisfied.”

Scott A. Davis, 58, Eastside, Owner of the Rhode Island Antique Mall. “In today’s age of information, simply having knowledge is not worth much.  The secret to success in the future will not lie so much in what you know, but in your ability to synthesize information, whether already known or newly acquired, and to draw insightful and valuable conclusions from it.”

Scott Rotondo, 41, Pawtucket, accountant at Tivoli Audio. “Always be willing to expand your intellectual toolbox. Challenge the way things are done, and your own beliefs from time to time. Take in other people’s opposing points of view not with rancor and disdain but with dignity and respect.”

Lisa A. Proctor, 55, East Providence, healer/counselor. “You can not necessarily say all things are possible with God because many do not believe, but I would say a lot of situations we find ourselves in heal when we live honestly, purely, committed and have a merciful and compassionate heart towards others.”

Rudy Cheeks, 65, a musician and columnist of Motif, Providence, “If you can find what you love and make it the center of your life, you’re doing good and will likely be happy.  Whatever you do, “building community” should be an element in your life. Meet your responsibilities (e.g. if you want to create your own family, make sure you are ready for it and committed to it). When you become an “active consumer,” be a smart and thoughtful consumer.”

Kathy Needham, 53, Rumford, Controller, of Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call. “Follow this old adage, “Autograph your work with excellence, it is a signature of who you are”.  Take great pride in all you do but always remember to be humble.  Know that success is a personal goal.”

Gayle L. Gifford, 61, Providence, a strategy consultant to nonprofits, “Be an informed citizen of the world.  Read quality news from home and abroad.  Travel. Look. Hear. Participate to create the community you want your children and grandchildren to live in. Hopefully that community is one of justice, peace and inclusion. Don’t work all day in a job that destroys what you value. Play outside.”

Crystal R. Parifitt, 41, Pawtucket, Owner of  FurBabies, a small pet salon. “Live within your means, below if you can…owning the biggest and best is overrated.  Don’t go after financial gain, choose financial stability because in 20 years you will regret the time you spent ‘chasing’ when you should have been living.”

Nancy Thomas, Cranston, President of Tapestry Communications.  “What you have done has largely been expected of you.  Now, what do you expect of yourself!  Find more than one thing you can do.  Pursue your education.  You’re not done.  Read, discuss, have opinions. Let the negative inspire you, and the positive be your lens. And, as it has always been, there is no work as important as that of raising a child.  Find your path to doing well at both.”

Barbara Peters, Newport, former AARP RI Communications Director, “Life is full of successes and disappointments. When we are young we tend to “cry” when the material things we want don’t immediately come our way. Forget the disappointments and concentrate on your successes. Nobody will hand you what you think you deserve.  [Only] hard work, dedication to your craft and sensitivity to the feelings of others will bring the rewards to you that are truly deserved.”

Cheryl Babiec, Pawtucket, Pawtucket School Teacher. “As an old saying goes….’One Man’s Junk is Another Man’s Treasure’ continues to hold true with the test of time. One of my yard sale “finds” had the following inspirational verse (though the author is unknown):‘Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.’”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.