Legislators should lead by example on pensions

Our view: Andy Harris' proposed reforms were a good idea

February 18, 2010

It's early yet, but 2010 is shaping up to be one for the record books. Baltimore gets 4 feet of snow. The New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all -- Sen. Andy Harris is saying stuff on the Senate floor we happen to agree with.

The often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt state senator from Cockeysville is not the most popular man in Annapolis. True to form, the Republican devoted much time and effort yesterday morning trying to embarrass Democrats over matters of pension and salary in a manner more reminiscent of gridlocked Congress than is typical of the state legislature.

But two of his ideas had merit: He wanted to prohibit state lawmakers who commit a felony or certain other crimes from collecting full pension benefits, and he would like to reduce lawmakers' pensions by converting them to defined contribution plans similar to the private sector's 401(k).

Then came the real shocker: On the matter of lawmakers who break the law while in office, the rest of the Senate agreed with him and adopted his proposal as an amendment to a bill that would freeze Senate salaries during the next four years.

As for reducing pension benefits more broadly, the chamber's behavior was a bit more predictable. Despite a plea from Senator Harris that he needed another day to straighten out constitutional "bugs" in his amendment, Democrats declined to hold up the bill and rejected his efforts.

That Maryland Republicans would like to rub Democratic noses in pensions is no surprise. The Baltimore County Council brought the issue to the forefront with the revelation that members could retire at full salary after a mere 20 years on the job. Mayor Sheila Dixon's $83,000 pension, a sweet benefit she gets to keep despite her legal woes, was the icing on the political cake.

But setting political motives aside, there's merit to taking action on pensions. Maryland needs to do something about retiree benefits -- governments at every level are struggling to fully fund pensions these days.

The senator's proposal wouldn't have done much to close the state's multi-billion-dollar projected budget deficits. Del. Bill Frank, the Republican who tried the same tactic in the House, estimates a savings of only about $750,000 a year.

But, as Eastern Shore Republican Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus pointed out, it would be at least a symbolic indication that lawmakers are serious about badly needed benefit reforms. Their primary target should be state retiree health insurance benefits -- a $15 billion liability Maryland can't possibly afford.

Switching more state employees to defined contribution programs and away from defined benefit or pension plans is also a worthwhile goal. Add the state's pension deficit with the retiree health benefit shortfall and Maryland's unfunded retiree obligation is as big as the entire $30 billion state budget.

Admittedly, the floor of the Senate isn't the best place to rewrite complex pension law. And Democrats can rightly grouse that Senator Harris, a candidate for Congress, is more interested in milking the issue than working on it. Certainly, the press release he issued Monday reads more like talk radio fulminations than a thoughtful discourse on the pros and cons of public employee retirement options.

But Senator Harris wouldn't be in a position to embarrass General Assembly leadership if their record on controlling the costs of state employee benefits was something over which they might be proud. It isn't, and so he could.

Readers respond

It is absolutely essential that all state employee and legislative pensions be converted from defined benefit to defined contribution plans. They should be responsible for their own retirement like the rest of the nation.

NotableM

Andy Harris is always right. He's a true fiscal conservative. It's just sad you simpletons don't realize that, but then again you are the Sun editorial board.

Sean O'Donnell

You're giving Andy Harris credit for showboating while dodging the real issue. Even I would applaud if he dared to address the real need for state pension and retiree benefit reform. Where is his press release boldy proposing state employee pension and benefit cuts, or alternatively calling for a realistic down payment on our retiree obligations?

Steve Lebowitz

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