Legislative self-interest

Originally Published in the Frederick News-Post

Marta Hummel Mossburg Dec 22, 2010

As the state wrestles with ways to pay for state employee pensions and health care, one thing is clear: Legislators with a state or local government pension in their day jobs must recuse themselves from voting on the issue. They should not be allowed to vote directly or indirectly on their own benefits and hand taxpayers the bill.

Many people fit that description based on a review of legislative biographies, including House Speaker Michael Busch, an employee of Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks.

Others include Delegate Charles Barkley, D-39, a retired Montgomery County teacher; Lisa Gladden, D-41, a public defender in Baltimore; Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-22, a retired educator in Prince George's County; Delegate John Olszewski, D-6, a teacher in Baltimore County; and Delegate-elect Eric Luedtke, D-14, who teaches in Burtonsville in Montgomery County.

For a full accounting, state legislative leaders should make public online a list of every legislator who will draw a state or local pension in their day jobs and ensure that information is also included on elected officials' biographies. They should not be able to hide behind a veil of neutrality when their wallets will be affected by a vote on retirement benefits.

Educators in the legislature in particular should weed themselves from the discussion as one of the big issues to be addressed this year is whether to shift some of the cost of teacher pensions to the counties. Not surprisingly, county officials have vigorously and publicly opposed such a move, as have some of the people listed above.

Last week Harford Schools Superintendent Robert Tomback said he would have to cut staff and potentially close some schools if teacher retirement costs are transferred to local school systems. Luedtke told The Gazette last week that the state should maintain the costs.

He added, "The truth is that if we in Maryland value education, then we have to recognize that the single most important thing in a child's education is the quality of the teacher we put in front of them every day."

It's unclear how teacher quality suffers when costs are shifted from one government jurisdiction to another. But it certainly will be harder to keep feeding the education machines in each county at the expense of other parts of the budget -- the norm since the K-12 education law known as Thornton passed in 2002.

Nonteachers in the legislature who work for local governments would also be affected by the bill as any cost-shifting makes it more difficult for counties to pay other expenses, including the health care and pensions of all their employees.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, almost half the states have passed legislation to reduce costs to their pension plans in the last year. A commission is examining how Maryland can reduce its retirement benefits burden, conservatively estimated at $33 billion for pensions and health care.

Since the state has saved virtually nothing for health care and faces close to a $2 billion budget deficit, it's especially important to figure out how to pay for those benefits. Taxpayers deserve a debate focused on what's best for everyone in the state, not just what's best for those who will gain from them.