Annapolis Strikes State Employees Again

By Jay Hancock

Story posted 2011.01.30 at 04:40 AM EST

To escape fiscal jeopardy, Gov. Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly are whacking the pensions and retiree health benefits of state employees — well, most state employees.

The budget being debated in Annapolis would do nothing to change generous pensions for Maryland governors or legislators. Shouldn’t the policymakers serving up pain to teachers, safety inspectors, revenue analysts and so forth drink from the same cup?

“Absolutely,” says Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the Senate. “I think we should,” says Michael E. Busch, speaker of the House.

“I wouldn’t think of reforming the pension system for everybody else and ignoring the state legislature,” says Casper R. Taylor Jr., former House speaker and chairman of the commission that recommended pension cuts.

“If we’re changing things for employees, those final changes should be considered and evaluated to inform changes for elected officials and governors,” says O’Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec.

But talk, it turns out, is cheap.

The way Annapolis is set up, cutting pensions for governors and the General Assembly can’t happen until 2014 at the earliest. By then, the momentum of reform is likely to be spent. The stated intentions of 2011 will be a distant whisper.

Legislators already get a better pension deal than the rank and file. Like state workers, they contribute 5 percent of their pay to the pension kitty, but they rack up credits for future payments at a sharply higher rate.

It takes a state worker 28 years of service to qualify for a pension equal to half her working salary. General Assembly members get the same deal after 17 years.

What’s more, legislators get post-retirement raises. If incumbent General Assembly members receive a pay increase, retired ones see a proportional bump in their pensions. Regular state pensioners get only cost-of-living raises with strict (3 percent) caps.

Retired governors get a similar deal — one-third or one-half the salary of the current governor, depending on whether they served one term or two. And they don’t contribute anything to the system while in office.

True, Maryland’s elected-official system is not the egregious profiteering scheme characterized by pensions in, say, California.

Although Maryland Assembly members earn more than any other part-time state legislators in the country except those in Hawaii, their salary of $43,500 a year doesn’t seem excessive for making democracy work in the nation’s 19th-biggest state. Despite the accelerated credits, pensions for Assembly members can’t be more than two-thirds of current legislators’ salaries. So there’s no pension windfall for spending decades in the legislature.

O’Malley’s pension is tied to a salary ($150,000, rising to $160,000 in 2014) that was 11th-highest among governors in the country last year.

Whatever the status quo, policymakers say, elected officials need to share the misery with others getting a state paycheck. Pensions for elected officials should be reviewed for “sustainability and fairness,” said one of O’Malley’s slides the day he proposed the wider reforms.

What nobody volunteered is that that review isn’t scheduled to take place for years.

Under the Maryland Constitution, independent commissions recommend pay for governors and legislators, but they meet only in election years. The panels deliver a take-it-or-leave-it pay recommendation to lawmakers. The legislature and governor then put it on the books, setting salaries and benefits for their successors as determined by the November election. The idea, which dates from the 1970s, is that sitting policymakers shouldn’t vote on their own compensation.

The commissions met last year, basically keeping things unchanged. They aren’t scheduled to meet again until 2014. Until they do, no aspect of legislative or gubernatorial compensation can be changed. Even the cut in prescription-drug benefits for state retirees proposed by O’Malley won’t apply to retired legislators, said Michael Rubenstein, a policy analyst for the General Assembly.

Busch insists that the legislature will eventually get pension downgrades. “Everybody will have a moral obligation as far as I’m concerned to follow in step with what state employees have been asked to do,” Busch said.

I asked Miller whether the compensation commissions could meet sooner than 2014.

“I’ll be certain to take a look at it along with the governor,” he said.

But don’t be surprised if the timetable is unalterable and politician-pension reform ends up being milder than what everybody else gets. The results look like they’ll fit the pattern of organizations everywhere: The bosses make out better than the people they supervise.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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… Do as we say, not as we do to you …

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