The question of who will pay for public school teachers' pensions has become something of a political football in this year's cash-starved, election-year version of the Maryland General Assembly, and Howard County's legislators seem to reflect the nonpartisan difference of opinions.
The county's three state senators - two Democrats and one Republican - all favor the Senate-approved plan pushing an expanding part of that cost off on local governments starting July 1, 2011. Statewide, local governments would have to shoulder $63 million the first year, growing to $337 million by July 1, 2014. Howard's share would be $4.4 million the first year, rising to $24 million by fiscal 2015. The cost would increase as more teachers retire.
But among the county's eight delegates, the split is 6-2 favoring the unanimous vote of the House Appropriations Committee to reject the Senate's plan. Liberal Democrat Elizabeth Bobo said she's not sure who should bear the burden but would not vote against a state budget shifting some of the cost to the county. Conservative Republican Warren E. Miller agrees with the senators, while Gail H. Bates, a Republican with county government experience, lines up with the other Democrats. A conference committee will have to resolve the difference.
County school officials and education union leaders fear that if a shift takes place, pension costs will become part of the annual county school budget and will eventually eat into funding intended to help students.
County Executive Ken Ulman is also opposed to the shift, though he noted that the Senate proposal is more reasonable than some suggestions that were rejected.
"I do not want any shift of the pension costs," Ulman said, though he, like schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, thinks that may well happen in future years. "We pay Social Security costs," Ulman noted, and the county has no say in how the pensions are administered. Still, he was pleased that the House opposed the move. "We live to fight another day," he said.
The split among county legislators may be deceptive, however, because nearly every county legislator said they believe county government will eventually have to begin paying a share of pension costs.
"If you look at the out years, we [state government] still have a $2 billion [revenue] problem. There's only a few places you can go to make up those kinds of dollars," said state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, who also sits on the Budget and Tax Committee. "It's just going to be more difficult next year."
Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat and former Howard County executive, agreed.
"I think I'm looking at the big picture here," he said. "It's something that has to occur." He called the Senate's plan "a reasonable compromise." The Senate rejected a suggestion from Frederick County Republican Sen. David Brinkley to put half the $900 million statewide pension cost on local governments.
Republican Sen. Allan H. Kittleman noted that Howard's school board sets teacher salaries, which in turn affect pensions. "The state has no say in salaries," he said. The change would be gradual and give counties plenty of time to adjust. "It does shift a burden," he acknowledged, but said the county should cut spending, not raise taxes to meet it, despite Howard's own revenue problems.
But most Howard delegates see things differently, at least this year.
"The fundamental problem is, I don't think shifting around the pensions in the long run solves anybody's problem," said Del. Guy Guzzone, the House delegation's chairman who also sits on the Appropriations Committee. "Someone has to be responsible for it," he said, and the state's budget will be balanced regardless.
Bates, as did Ulman, recalled that the General Assembly boosted teacher pension benefits four years ago and bears equal responsibility with local governments for the system's growing costs.
"I'm not for dumping that back to the locals," she said. "I will never be in support."
Others, like Dels. Shane Pendergrass and Steven J. DeBoy, both Democrats, felt there should be a thorough discussion before such an important funding change.
"You don't just do that to someone," Pendergrass said. "It needs to be talked about." DeBoy agreed, saying that the subject should be thoroughly discussed by state and local officials.
This is just not the year for it, according to Del. Frank S. Turner, though it is coming. "Eventually, it's going to happen," he said. "We're going to run out of options unless the economy really improves."
Del. James E. Malone, also a Democrat, said it's just a bad idea.
"I don't think the locals can handle that," said Malone, who, like DeBoy and Kasemeyer, also represents parts of Baltimore County.
But Bobo isn't sure and Miller disagrees.
"Something's got to give," said Bobo, also a former county executive. "I know the county is in tight straits, but the state is in tighter straits," she said. Miller agreed more with the senate argument about responsibility resting with those who set pay levels.
"The expectation is the state will pick up the tab. There needs to be some realignment," he said. People must realize that "the state isn't the county's piggybank."
Cousin said he too feels an eventual shift of some pension costs is "inevitable," but he called the Senate plan "draconian" because of the quickly escalating cost to the county. The issue should receive careful, deliberate study before anything is done, he said. Howard County Education Association president Ann DeLacy agreed.
"Shifting the burden to county government would have a very negative impact on the funding of education," she said. "I know that is not the answer."