Editorial: Get serious about fixing Massachusetts' pension law

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

It's easy - too easy - to get people outraged over public employee pension abuse.

New cases appear every few months: Billy Bulger boosts his UMass pension by adding the value of a house he never lived in; an ex-state rep boosts his by getting his years as a volunteer library trustee counted the same as full-time state employment; well-paid executives who leave for brighter pastures and incumbent legislators who lose their re-election bids enhance their pensions by considering themselves "fired."

What's hard is changing the rules that make outrageous behavior legal. The defenders of the status quo - those who benefit from the pension perks, the unions and their friends in the Legislature - simply keep their heads down and wait for the public outrage to pass.

Gov. Deval Patrick on Sunday announced his proposals for eliminating the worst of the pension abuses, including:

- Aligning the MBTA pension system, with its notoriously generous "23 years and out" provision, with the state system.

- Eliminating the clause that gives workers - and elected officials - a year's worth of pension credit for working a single day in the new year.

- Restricting pension calculations to real compensation, not housing, parking or any other perk some pension recipients have claimed as income.

- Eliminating "dual service" pensions and "double pensions."

- Closing the loophole that has allowed employees to collect higher pensions because of injuries coincidentally sustained while temporarily filling the duties of a more highly paid employee.

There may be more fixes Patrick did not include. We're curious whether similar loopholes exist in municipal or school district pension plans. We'd like the Legislature to consider eliminating pensions altogether for elected officials, as a means to discourage careerism among legislators. With a state commission on pension reform set to begin hearings next week, now is the time to present alternatives.

Patrick is right to note that the vast majority of state employees deserve every penny of their pensions. The abuses of a few undermine the reputations of the many. He is also right, if a bit tardy, in making pension reform a priority.

But there is much ground between proposing reforms and signing them into law. Patrick's predecessor, Mitt Romney, also spoke eloquently on the topic of pension reform. The House and Senate never brought it up for a vote. It won't happen this time around either - especially if all the governor does is issue a press release.

Patrick says he isn't interested in scoring political points by beating up on individuals; he's interested in writing substantive pension reform into law. If so, he'll keep pushing for reform even if his allies in the Legislature don't like it. If he does, and the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate don't come up with a reform bill this strong or stronger - or worse, if they don't pass any reform at all this year - they will wear the "hack" brand bestowed by a cynical electorate, and so will those who support them.

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