February 9, 2012

AFSCME backs more changes to judges pensions than commission recommends

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By Megan Poinski and Len Lazarick
Megan@MarylandReporter.com and Len@MarylandReporter.com

The Judicial Compensation Commission is recommending practically no changes to judges’ pensions, except for an increase in contributions by new judges.

But the largest state employees union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, asked the Senate budget committee Wednesday to consider broader changes to judicial retirement benefits to bring them more in line with retirement benefits for the average state worker.

The commission recommended increasing new judges’ contributions to the retirement systems from 6% to 8%.  Last year, the legislature increased pension contributions for all state employees and teachers from 5% to 7%, and made other changes to reduce pension costs. But the General Assembly did not touch judicial pensions, leaving it for the commission to make recommendations.

AFSCME deputy director Sue Esty said the commission proposal for little change “does a disservice to thousands of other state employees.”

A current judge’s salary is about $135,000. An average employee who pays into the pension system makes $47,000, she said. “That’s a huge difference,” said Esty.

She listed several ways that judges get better retirement benefits.

Judges get a pension of two-thirds of the pay of a current judge after age 60 and just 16 years of service.

A current judge who’s worked for 16 years could make a pension of $90,000 a year, she said. Meanwhile, the average state employee who has worked for 30 years is paid $25,000 annually in retirement.

Judges are vested in their pension benefit from day one. It now takes 10 years for any state employee to become vested.

Judges can take advantage of the retiree health insurance program after five years on the bench, while state employees need to work for 25 years to get the same benefit.

“A brand new Parole and Probation agent would make $32,500 a year,” Esty said. “That’s really about a third of a retired judges full pension, and only a little more than the raise the judges are asking for” — $29,000 over the next four years.

If the General Assembly is going to look at sustaining the state’s pension system, there is no reason not to extend some of the other pension changes to judges, Esty said.

Esty said that the argument about giving judges better salary and benefits to attract them to the bench is not unique to them. She said that state employees tend to be paid 80% of the salaries of comparable workers in the private sector. Many state agencies report that employees of all types tend to leave state service when they can find better salaries, she said.