Secretary of State William F. Galvin urged state legislators Monday to require companies that don't offer an employee retirement plan to participate in a state-administered program to let workers save for their future.
The bill under consideration would apply to companies with more than 25 employees and is one of numerous similar proposals by officials across the country, in the wake of Obama administration efforts to make workplace-based retirement savings accounts more available.
"About half of all workers in the country don't have access to a retirement plan,'' said Anek Belbase, a senior research project manager at Boston College's Center for Retirement Research.
He said basic plans that resemble IRAs or 401(k)s for employees at small companies could give millions of workers their first opportunity to save for retirement with the simplicity of payroll deductions.
This month, the US Department of Labor eased regulations to allow states to serve as fiduciaries for multiemployer retirement plans. That reduces the potential risk of overseeing an investment program for small employers, as well as the costs, most of which are often passed along to employees in 401(k)-type plans.
Galvin, who testified before the Legislatures's Joint Committee on Financial Services, said in an interview after the hearing: "This isn't simply a nice thing to do or a good thing to do — it's a necessary thing to do."
Many people don't have an "organized way to save for their retirement,'' Galvin said. "If we don't do something, ultimately this will become a government burden."
But some business groups and investment industry representatives are opposing these new plans, saying companies already have access to retirement plans if they want to offer them.
President Obama's "myRA" program, launched earlier this month, offers low-risk IRA savings accounts to workers. The plans charge no fees and can be funded through payroll deduction.
Christopher Geehern, executive vice president of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a group representing large and small employers, said in a statement, "The proposal represents yet another nanny-state intrusion by government into the relationship between employers and their workers."
He also said, "The idea that the government, which has underfunded its own pension plans by trillions of dollars, can better manage retirement assets for workers than some of the world-renowned money management firms based in Massachusetts is preposterous."
Under Galvin's plan, however, private investment firms would potentially bid to manage the money of participants. That's different from a competing proposal suggesting that the assets should go into the state pension fund, similar to a measure being considered in California.
As currently envisioned, Galvin's plan would require employers with at least 25 employees who do not offer a 401(k) plan to make the state plan available. They would not be required to offer matching funds.
Stephen Austin, a spokesman for Boston-based Fidelity Investments, one of a number of large firms that could benefit from a large new retirement plan to oversee, declined to say if the firm was supporting or opposing the proposed state plan.
He said the company already offers plans for small employers. But, "We agree with the need to increase retirement savings opportunities and continue to work with policymakers to ensure proposals are workable in practice for savers, employers, and service providers,'' he said.
Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., of Springfield, was among a number of firms that sent lobbyists to the hearing to keep tabs on the bill.
Spokesman Jim Lacey for MassMutual said in a statement, "As a highly regulated business and a major employer in the Commonwealth, we continually monitor legislative activity that potentially impacts our industry and Western Massachusetts, and this includes today's hearing."
The Legislature's session is officially over for this year, meaning the retirement bill would not be taken up until the new year at the earliest.