Pension Reform Run Amok

January 31, 1994

A Jan. 31 editorial misstated Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s position on reform of pensions for Anne Arundel's appointed and elected officials. Mr. Curran ruled that the county may retroactively repeal pension benefits (a ruling since superseded by a Circuit Court judge), but not that benefits already received be paid back.

Anne Arundel County Council members made a big mistake in 1989 when they gave appointed and elected officials a ludicrously generous pension plan. So now they are trying to win political brownie points by punishing those who legally benefited from their error.

A bill sponsored by council members Maureen Lamb and David G. Boschert (both of whom voted for the 1989 law) would rescind benefits for people who have earned them and require them to pay back the benefits -- with interest! This will, of course, go over big with the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association and others who become ill at the thought of government higher-ups collecting fat pensions, but that doesn't make it less unfair. As ridiculous as was the 1989 plan -- which boosted benefits by 20 percent and allowed officials to retire at 50 or after 16 years of service -- people who were vested under it have a right to those benefits. Moreover, it is morally unjust to take away promised benefits from anyone -- a policeman, a military retiree or the head of a county department.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

It is unclear what Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. was thinking when he decided the county could demand vested pensioners to pay back benefits. Maybe he was thinking about the benefits of telling certain interest groups what they want to hear. Legally, it is doubtful whether a law based on Mr. Curran's opinion will stand up in court, which is where the Lamb/Boschert measure is headed should the council pass it. Could it meet the standard set in a 1984 case in which the courts ruled Maryland could change teachers' pensions because it faced financial ruin otherwise? Probably not; the amount of money involved with 94 current or former county officials is not that great.

Before they vote on this bill, council members need to ask themselves what they are trying to accomplish. Are they trying to reform the pension plan so it no longer unreasonably rewards government officials at taxpayers' expense? Legislation to do that has already been passed. Or are they trying to make up for past mistakes and lost political ground by pandering to a constituency that would love to see the screws put to those who benefited under that 1989 law, even if flies in the face of the Constitution, even if it is simply unfair?

That is what this piece of legislation is about.

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