Sweet Pension Deal

January 31, 1995

An editorial in yesterday's editions incorrectly described Prince George's County pension benefits to be taken by Gov. Parris N. Glendening when he turns 55 in three years. The governor has given up his right to $63,000 in benefits between now and then, though he is eligible for supplemental pension payments of $21,000 a year at age 55.

The Sun regrets the error.

The first stumble of the Glendening administration occurred over an issue with little statewide significance: a too-sweet early pension payout crafted while Parris N. Glendening was Prince George's county executive. Now it has come back to haunt him. It leaves a perception that Mr. Glendening and his aides will reap rewards from a special retirement program they helped set up.

By announcing yesterday that he was foregoing the retirement money until age 55 -- when any Prince George's worker with similar longevity would be eligible for pension benefits -- Mr. Glendening limited the damage. By ordering three of his aides to do likewise, he sent the right kind of message. But he should have gone farther.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The governor will still receive the extra payments -- $63,000 -- at 55 or when he leaves office. His three aides are bigger winners. When they leave state service, they'll collect the accumulating supplemental benefits: a total of $820,000 by the time they reach 55. They already have cashed out over $300,000 in unused sick leave.

This gives the impression that certain officials are reaping unfair rewards at taxpayer expense. In this instance, one of the lucky recipients helped create the provisions that will ultimately give him $300,000 in extra payments.

This episode throws a much-needed spotlight on pension provisions put in place for privileged government workers. Congress' retirement plan is scandalous. Maryland's judicial and legislative pensions are quite generous. Many local governments have equally flattering early payout plans.

In this case, there were reasons for setting up a "safety net" program for appointed staffers who might be fired at any moment. But not a pricey pension deal. What was needed was a sensible severance provision to tide over fired workers.

To be fair, the employees contributed part of their own earnings into this supplemental program. They deserve this money back. But if Mr. Glendening and his aides want to remove lingering suspicions, they ought to refuse to accept any money from the special pension program, except what they themselves contributed.

The governor claims he knew nothing about the later addition of generous benefits, and that he was unaware he made his aides eligible for six-figure rewards by asking them to "resign" last year. Still, he has to take responsibility. His administration set up a program that could leave Prince George's with huge unfunded pension liabilities.

Is this the way Mr. Glendening intends to run state government? Can the governor's new personnel secretary -- the same one responsible for P.G.'s special benefits package -- be trusted by legislators or state employee unions? We'll find out when his confirmation hearing takes place.

The new governor has a credibility problem. He must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. What happened in Prince George's was only partially rectified by his actions yesterday. From now on, he can expect all his moves on pension and benefits matters to be placed under a microscope.

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