March 30, 2010

Narrow benefits bills raise issue of costs, equity

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By Erich Wagner
Erich@MartylandReporter.com

Some senators are questioning bills narrowly tailored to secure insurance and pension benefits to a small number of constituents with unusual circumstances.

The Senate passed measures last week preventing pension allowances from going down and allowing surviving family members to cash in on disability benefits in the case of a person dying before the state is able to process the application.

The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee was torn on the issue, with a lengthy debate before it approved the measures.

Sen. Rona Kramer, D-Montgomery, feared pension costs could snowball because of numerous incremental expansions of benefits.

“It’s great to be generous,” Kramer said. “But there comes a time when we have to be fiscally responsible.”

Budget and Taxation Vice Chairman Ed Kasemeyer, who sponsored one of the bills passed last week, says there are always a few bills like this each year. They typically try to include narrow segments of individuals,but in the spirit of the original law.

Kasemeyer’s bill originated with the case of a man who applied for disability benefits but died days later. The widow was unable to claim benefits, because the state could not process the application of a dead man.

Earlier this session, the Senate passed a bill introduced by Senate Education, Health and Environment Chair Joan Carter-Conway that would narrowly extend mandated health insurance benefits for in vitro fertilization based on the experience of a constituent couple.

These bills “correct an error or circumstance that never was contemplated,” Kasemeyer said.

But Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, instructed committee staffers to be wary when examining bills that narrowly expand disability and pension coverage for “red-headed Eskimos” — an old Capitol Hill terms referring to a bill that benefits a few targeted groups or individuals.

“When we want to cover these extraneous circumstances, make sure it’s not to the extent that it causes a violation” of federal nondiscrimination laws, Brinkley said. “Something that ostensibly appears pretty small, in the long term can cost as much as $4 million.”

Kasemeyer said that in past years, these measures tended to get little scrutiny.

“Everything has its ebbs and flows,” Kasemeyer said. “Right now, the whole discussion of pensions and insurance in terms of the state’s fiscal situation — it’s higher interest than it used to be. That’s en vogue.”

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