Lawmakers raise benefits for firefighters and police

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AUGUSTA – For weeks, firefighters and police officers have lined the halls of the State House, quietly and politely making the case to lawmakers that they should have more security with their pension and health benefits.

On Wednesday, their determination paid off.

Legislation signed into law by Gov. John Baldacci on Wednesday afternoon will allow firefighters and police officers to buy into the Maine State Retirement System. The law also requires the state to contribute to the costs of the retirees’ health benefits.

After paying into the plan for at least five years, the first responders become eligible for benefits when they turn 50. The law also makes the benefits portable if the person transfers to a job in a different town or city.

“Our firefighters and police officers are the insurance we carry for our communities,” said Assistant Majority Leader Bob Duplessie, D-Westbrook and a retired professional firefighter. “They deserve quality, affordable health care, and the ability to put money away for a good retirement after all their hard work.”

Capturing the momentum after a late-night defeat Tuesday, lawmakers backing the law were able to pull together enough support in the House on Wednesday to force the measure through by a single vote, 72-71. It had failed Tuesday night, 67-71, but was kept alive by a parliamentary maneuver orchestrated by Majority Leader Glenn Cummings, D-Portland.

In the Senate, the vote wasn’t as close although the debate was still intense. The measure passed there 20-13.

Arguments against the legislation centered on long-term costs that the state could incur by supplementing the retirement benefits of a new group of employees.

State Sen. Peter Mills, R-Skowhegan, attacked the plan as fiscally irresponsible.

“We’ve had debates on pensions in years past,” said Mills, who’s running for the Republican nomination for governor. “And I have thought that we had emerged beyond the point of making a whole bunch of rash promises and then leaving it to our successors and our children and our grandchildren to pay for them.”

Referring to the promises of earlier legislatures, Mills tied the new benefits to the state’s already large unfunded pension and retiree-health-care liabilities.

“As a result, we have placed the state of Maine in the same position as GM, Delta Airlines and Ford Motor Co.,” Mills said. “We’ve got outstanding promises out there that to be fully funded would require $4 billion or $5 billion.”

Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, was credited with crafting a compromise that drew enough votes for the bill to pass.

“Some people were really concerned about the costs,” Martin said. “And that was a legitimate concern.”

The Martin compromise increased the age when participants could begin to collect benefits from 45 to 50 and created a sliding scale that would adjust the amount each police officer or firefighter contributes to the plan based on the number of years they will pay into the system.

“There is no unfunded liability,” Martin said. “This bill doesn’t require the state to do anything. I’m not suggesting future legislatures should, but they could adjust the amount of the state contribution.”

Additionally, Martin said, as the salaries of the police and firefighters go up over time, the amount that they are contributing to the retirement plan will also increase.

In the first year, Martin said, the cost to the state is $1 million. In the second year, it’s estimated to be between $3 million and $4 million.

“It’s true that costs could go up, but what’s new,” Martin said. “No matter what you do, costs could go up.”

The new law takes effect in 90 days.

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