By Megan Poinski
More than 100 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees came to Annapolis on Wednesday to lobby the 428th General Assembly for their No. 1 priority: preserving the health and pension benefits they have.
Before the session began at noon on Wednesday, union members from throughout the state filed into a public lounge in the House Office Building. AFSCME staff handed out green hats and scarves to the union members, as they signed onto a sheet with their names and legislative districts. Once they signed in, they sat at tables organized by district number and prepared to visit their newly elected representatives.
AFSCME is the largest union for state employees. Legislative director Sue Esty said that with several proposals circulating to make cuts in pension and health benefits – as well as recent furloughs, pay cuts and hiring freezes – the union members want to make sure they set the right tone for this General Assembly session.
“Our pensions and health care are important, and we will fight tooth and nail to keep them,” Esty said.
The union members who came to Annapolis included secretaries, hospital employees, state highway workers, people from the Motor Vehicle Administration and correctional officers.
After rousing chants of “We’re fired up; ain’t taking no more,” union members addressed copied letters to their delegates and senators, urging them to pay attention to some of the facts they believe are missing from the current discussion about pension and health benefits.
The letter states that the “corridor method” of pension funding – which does not require full funding – and the Wall Street crash in 2008 contributed to the pension funding problem. State employees are not the cause of the problem, the letter says. It goes on to say that the state’s current pension system is fundamentally sound and cost-effective, and health benefits often change through union negotiations.
AFSCME members have come to Annapolis often in the past to lobby legislators, but it isn’t often they are there on the first day.
Recent deliberations and recommendations from the Public Employees’ and Retirees’ Benefits Sustainability Commission galvanized the union members and spurred them into action. The eight-member commission created by legislation last year is recommending that the General Assembly cut state costs of health insurance 10% by hiking premiums and reducing coverage for state employees and retirees, and shift half the costs of teacher pensions to local school boards over the next three to five years.
Maryland currently has an estimated $33 billion in unfunded liabilities for benefits it has promised to pay over the next three decades — $18 billion for pensions and $15 billion for retiree health insurance. The growing unfunded liability, coupled with a $1.6 billion total budgetary gap on the horizon for the next fiscal year, puts pension reform on the front burner for the next General Assembly session.
At Wednesday’s rally, correctional officer Greg Currie, who works at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore, said he has attended pension commission meetings – even testifying about retirement benefits at a public hearing. Currie said that he just wants to see pensions and health care stay the same. He has written to his representatives in the General Assembly about the issue, and is hopeful that they will make a careful decision.
“We all know something has to me done, but there is no way that state employees should have to bear the full burden of the costs,” Currie said.