Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's man hoping to unlock pension money losing sleep while debate still unsettled

Terry Hewlin is anxiously awaiting pension amendments to pass through the House of Assembly Thursday, because he hopes to unlock some of his own pension money if changes to the law come into effect next year.

Terry Hewlin frustrated by stalled debate, Perry Trimper still wants opportunity to ask questions

Terry Hewlin hopes to unlock some of his pension money next year because, the substitute teacher says, his income has dropped significantly because of the pandemic. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Terry Hewlin is one of about 100 people who have contacted the provincial government since the pandemic began, asking them to unlock certain pension funds for people facing financial difficulties.

He has been following the issue closely, and was anxiously awaiting pension amendments to pass through the House of Assembly on Thursday, because he hopes to unlock some of his own pension money if changes to the law come into effect next year.

But Hewlin says his hopes were dashed when Perry Trimper threw a wrench into the process, which saw the House close, instead of debating the pension amendments. 

"Initially, I was in shock. I was very surprised and extremely disappointed," Hewlin said. 

The substitute teacher said his income dropped significantly because of the pandemic. He'd be eligible to unlock money from his government Money Purchase Pension Plan due to a low income. 

If passed, the amendments would allow people to withdraw pension money transferred into a locked-in retirement account, life income fund or locked-in retirement income fund. 

People with low incomes, those facing foreclosure of their mortgage, eviction, or who need to pay the first month's rent and security deposit can unlock the money. 

So can people who need to pay for medical bills and treatment and equipment for a disability. Anyone wishing to unlock money would have to provide documentation and a spouse or cohabitating partner would need to consent to the withdrawal.

"I couldn't sleep. I was tossing and turning and thinking about it," Hewlin said, adding that he wrote a letter to Trimper to express his frustration.

Independent MHA Perry Trimper is still looking for an opportunity to speak in question period in the House of Assembly on Monday, even though time is allotted for Independents only on Wednesdays. (CBC)

"I've made some life decisions based on the premise that this will go through," Hewlin said.

"It's more uncertainty, and I just wish this could get resolved before Christmas for sure, so we could go into the holidays with a clear idea of what's going to happen in the new year," he said.

Hewlin says he isn't looking to unlock "a lot of money" but enough to help him while he transitions to a new job.

Trimper wouldn't allow the House to debate the pension amendments on Thursday because he wasn't granted time in question period to ask about a report that says Mud Lake, a community along the Churchill River in his district, will flood again in the next two decades.

Trimper said he was assured he could have 90 seconds to ask his question, but it didn't happen.

In order to do more than one step in a day when it comes to legislation — like introducing it and debating it — every MHA has to agree to disregard the usual procedures and timeline. When he was denied a question, Trimper withdrew his consent to proceed with the pension-unlocking bill. 

Photos taken from the air show the damage from flooding in Mud Lake in 2017. (Yvonne Jones)

Hewlin was not a fan of that decision.

"I thought that was very unfair, to bring up an issue of such grave importance for another group and to pit two groups against one another, and conflate two separate issues," he said. "I thought that was very tactless on Mr. Trimper's part."

Government House leader Steve Crocker says the House of Assembly will reopen Monday to deal with the pension bill, but Trimper can't say if he'll support passing the legislation in one day, even though he says he is "a big fan" of it.

"I am also still looking for an opportunity to ask a very important question," he told reporters.

Trimper said it's a time-sensitive question he wants answered before the spring, since election rumours are strong, meaning he may not have a chance to get answers later.

It's not just about his question, Trimper said, but also about due diligence and following the process.

"This is a special situation when we're trying to pass a piece of legislation in a single day. The way we should be at this is going through each stage carefully," Trimper said.

"We need time for reflection, time for everyone on the floor to be able to ask questions and debate it properly. So I am concerned about it being rushed through," he said. 

Trimper said the pension changes aren't supposed to come into effect until March 1, leaving lots of time for the House to fully debate the issue.

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