FARGO — The COVID-19 stimulus plan given final Congressional approval on Wednesday, March 10, contains provisions to preserve worker pensions long fought for by former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

With President Joe Biden's expected signature, what is known as the American Rescue Plan Act will provide billions of dollars in direct aid to pension funds, including funds that support more than 400,000 Americans who paid into the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' Central States Pension Fund, which includes more than 2,000 people in North Dakota.

The pension-supporting provisions in the latest COVID-19 stimulus package closely mirror features of what is known as the Butch Lewis Act, a bill that languished in Congress for years without resolution.

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Heitkamp, a Democrat, was one of the authors of the Butch Lewis Act.

At a gathering of union workers in Fargo in 2018, Heitkamp warned that if pension funds were allowed to collapse, ripple effects could take down the U.S. economy.

Heitkamp and fellow Democrats, along with their union allies, tried but failed to get the Butch Lewis Act on the 2018 omnibus spending bill.

Although the bill went nowhere, many of its features were included in the ARPA stimulus package.

As part of that, Democrats chose to cut back on unemployment benefits during negotiations with Republicans in order to free up money for the pension rescue plan.

As final approval of the stimulus package neared, Heitkamp said she couldn't be happier with the outcome.

"You can't imagine what a relief this is," Heitkamp said. "This is about working-class people being put first in line and finally it's happening."

Heitkamp said the new stimulus package puts the focus on "people who work for a living," and she gave much of the credit to Dennis Kooren, chairman of the Fargo Pension Protection Committee, who Heitkamp said worked tirelessly for years to secure pension benefits for workers and retirees.

Dennis Kooren, right, conducts a meeting of local Teamsters in Fargo in 2019. Forum file photo. 
Dennis Kooren, right, conducts a meeting of local Teamsters in Fargo in 2019. Forum file photo. 

As final Congressional approval of the pension-saving provisions began taking shape, Kooren said he was continuing to fight as hard as he could "until the ink dries" on the legislation.

"I've lost a lot of my friends during this fight," Kooren added. "It's an awfully bitter-sweet moment, but it's all worth it. I'm just waiting for the champagne to pop the cork."

ND delegation voted 'nay' on stimulus plan, pension rescue

North Dakota's U.S. Republican Senators John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer voted against approval of ARPA and its pension provisions on March 6.

Fellow Republican Kelly Armstrong voted against the bill when it was initially approved by the U.S. House in February and he voted against ARPA again on Wednesday.

Asked about Armstrong's thoughts on ARPA, an Armstrong spokesman provided a statement Armstrong released following the February House vote.

The statement reads in part:

"I have long supported commonsense, targeted relief to help North Dakotans crush the pandemic. The Democrats’ $1.9 trillion package is a handout for radical progressive causes that provides little relief for Americans. Only 9% of the spending is for direct COVID relief, while more than 90% is geared towards Democrats’ political priorities and pet projects," Armstrong wrote.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Hoeven said:

"Over the last year, Congress has approved five bipartisan COVID relief bills that have been targeted to address pandemic needs, including $900 billion approved in late December that is still being disseminated to address needs of health care providers, schools, small businesses and others.

"The Democrats’ $1.9 trillion package includes too many policies and too much spending unrelated to the pandemic," Hoeven added.

In a statement released Wednesday evening following the final House vote on ARPA, which stuck to party lines, Cramer stated:

"I am glad Congress was finally able to tackle the problems facing multi-employer pensions. While the underlying $1.9 trillion legislation was filled with provisions I could not support, the pension portion of the bill was an improvement from the Butch Lewis Act. And although it did not include as many reforms or safeguards as I would have preferred, I am thankful assistance will be given to shore up these pension plans and provide much-needed certainty for current and future retirees."

The pension crisis has been blamed in part on the recession of the late 2000s and the housing market crash. The economic upheaval resulted in less money entering pension funds than was going out.

Many Republicans objected to the inclusion of pension saving provisions in the COVID-19 relief bill, calling it a blank check for unions.

Democratic backers of Butch Lewis argued that a collapse of pension funds would be costly in different ways, including retirees needing government aid to get by.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose membership is most affected by troubled pension funds, has about 50 union pension funds that will be helped by the passage of ARPA, including the union's Central States plan, which has about 400,000 current participants and beneficiaries.

It's been estimated annual payouts in the Central States plan could be around $15,000 a year per beneficiary.

Heitkamp said if the Central States plan had been allowed to fail, it would have had a dramatic impact on the federal government's pension guarantee fund, possibly leading to pension funds collapsing across the country.

She also underscored the role Kooren played in keeping attention focused on the pension crisis.

"He is really a hero and he's not just a hero in North Dakota to these pensioners, he is a hero nationally. No one has fought this harder nationally," Heitkamp said.

Kooren said he finds it hurtful when some refer to the latest stimulus package as political "pork."

"This overall COVID relief bill is literally lifesaving for millions of people," Kooren said.

"What is 'pork' for one person is livelihood for another," Kooren said, describing the push for pension fund relief as a grassroots effort.

Kooren said though the battle was long, he never doubted how things would turn out.

"I told people all along: I believe in miracles," he said.