October 19, 2010

Baltimore County Republicans take pledge on pension reform

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By Barbara Pash
For MarylandReporter.com

Republican candidates for Baltimore County and state offices pledged Monday to support legislation that would change the pension system for all elected officials in the state.

Led by state’s attorney hopeful Steve Bailey, the group of about 20 candidates vowed to support legislation that would move elected officials out of the current defined benefit pension plan and into a 401(k) retirement savings plan.

“We are drawing a line in the sand,” Bailey said. “The benefits are far too generous for elected officials,” particularly those who serve in a part-time capacity such as County Council members and state legislators.

“We are leading by example,” said 42nd district state Senate candidate Kevin Carney. Republicans “are people of action, and this is a principle we believe in.”

Last summer, the long-time pension policy of the Baltimore County Council became a hot topic when it became known that 20-year council veteran Vince Gardina was leaving office with an annual lifetime pension equal to his County Council salary.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, the Democratic nominee for Baltimore County executive, introduced a bill that capped the pension benefit at 60% of his pay.

Council members make is $54,000 per year, and pensions are based on length of service. Under the Kamenetz bill, if they serve one four-year term, they get 20% of their salary per year; after eight years, 40% per year; and 12 years and more, 60%.

Bailey charged that the Democrat-controlled County Council was not interested in true pension reform. Democratic Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder introduced a bill establishing minimum age requirements that was not even considered because nobody would second it.

No reform of legislative pensions

Del. William Frank, a Republican from the 42nd district, related a similar tale. During the 2010 General Assembly, he said, his efforts to reform legislators’ pensions were blocked by the Democratic leadership.

The salary for a state delegate is currently $43,500 per year. Legislators have their own pension plan separate from the state employees’ pension plan.

Frank called the legislators’ plan “very generous,” noting that after serving eight years, members get 24% of their salaries.

“After 20 years [in the General Assembly], you can retire at age 60 and get two-thirds of your salary for life,” said Frank. (The maximum pension is actually reached after 22 years and 3 months of service, according to the General Assembly Compensation Commission.)

In last year’s legislative session, Frank sponsored two House resolutions to change the recommendations of the compensation commission.  One would have moved the legislators’ pension benefit plan into a 401(k) retirement savings plan. The second would have moved the legislators’ pension plan into the less generous state employees’ pension plan.

“I introduced the bills on February 18. I kept going to the chairman and asking, ‘When will they be heard?’ and I kept being told, ‘Next week,’” said Frank, who noted that the bills were finally heard on April 7, five days before adjournment.

“They let them languish. They ran the time out,” he said. “There was no interest in pension reform.”

Under the state constitution, the next time a bill to change legislators’ pensions can be introduced is in the 2014 General Assembly, for legislators entering the 2015 General Assembly. A new pension commission reviewing the retirement system for state employees and teachers holds its second meeting today (Tuesday), but it is not dealing with legislative pensions.

However, Frank said that he and Del. Susan Aumann, a 42nd district Republican, are investigating the possibility of offering legislators the option of putting retirement money into a 401(k) plan.

Aumann noted, “Given the state budget, the current pension system is not sustainable. We need a more modern, responsible way” for state employees’ retirement.