- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Curtis Johnson is eligible to retire from the state-run psychiatric hospital where he has worked for 33 years. But with a pension that state employees and lawmakers agree is one of the nation’s stingiest, Mr. Johnson figures he has at least a decade to go before he can afford to leave work.

“With the money they’re paying me, there’s no way for me to retire and live comfortably,” said Mr. Johnson, 53, who would get $919 a month if he retired now.

Mr. Johnson and his colleagues are waiting for Maryland lawmakers to make good on a vow from leaders to improve the pension system for teachers and state employees. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, considered putting money in his budget for upgrades, but ended up not doing it.

So, state employees unions are looking to the legislature to include pension improvements in the budget.

At a recent rally in Annapolis, more than 200 union members chanted “Pension Reform Now.” They shared stories about their retirement worries.

Several proposals to improve pensions are pending. With three weeks left in the General Assembly session, sponsors assured teachers and employees at the rally that something will be done, but it probably won’t be as generous as the workers hoped.

Even lawmakers pushing for pension upgrades haven’t agreed on how it should be done. Should they increase the contribution rate from employees and teachers, allowing them to set aside more money for retirement but possibly hurting the lowest-paid employees, who can’t spare extra money? Should the upgrades affect only new employees or be retroactive, something that would help current employees but drive up the cost?

The Maryland State Teachers Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees support a plan that would cost the state about $480 million a year — $318 million for teacher pensions and the rest for state employees. Legislators say a plan costing between $100 million and $150 million is more likely to pass, though one bill calls for an extra $386 million a year.

“We’re definitely going to have a pension bill coming out,” said Delegate Frank S. Turner, Howard County Democrat. “It’s just a matter of agreeing to those last couple things.”

House members generally have worries about making retroactive changes.

“The further you go back, the more money it costs,” Mr. Turner said, while senators said they favor retroactive improvements. They have until mid-April to agree on something or the issue stalls for a year.

“Right now, we’re in sort of opposite directions,” said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, Baltimore County Democrat who has sponsored pension upgrades, including more generous health care benefits. But Mr. Kasemeyer joined House members in predicting some improvement is certain this session.

The president of the teachers union, Patricia Foerster, warned that employees are watching the pension debate closely with an eye on the fall elections.

“No Child Left Behind? We’re going to leave … a lot of educators behind” if pensions aren’t improved, Miss Foerster said. She pointed to a National Education Association survey that put Maryland near the bottom for portion of salary paid to retirees.

“We have an almost impossible time maintaining a stable staff” because teachers leave for better benefits in other states or careers, Miss Foerster said.

The legislature held its first hearing on pension proposals last week. Lawmakers in both chambers said they expected more talk about pensions in coming weeks, and they assured the workers that there is plenty of time for change even though the session is more than half over.

“We will have a bill,” said Delegate Norman H. Conway, Eastern Shore Democrat and chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

The employees union is hoping the final version will include enough money to make a difference, said Sue Esty, lobbyist for AFSCME Council 92.

“I think we’ll get something,” Miss Esty said. “There seems to be sentiment in both the House and Senate to improve pensions. The question is how much money and how it will be done.”

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