Thursday, February 23, 2012

RUH ROH: Biggest Maryland Counties Launch Grassroots Effort to Fight Shift of Teacher Pension Costs from State to County

Maryland Juice woke up today to discover that many of the Free State's politically influential counties have banded together to fight a proposal to shift the cost of teachers' pensions from the State to Maryland's various counties. A new website and advocacy effort called "Stop the Shift" launched today:

Last month, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett called the proposal a "non-starter." But Capital News Service reported that the Senate President was putting his muscle behind the proposal:
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said Tuesday morning that he supports the shift, calling it “a fair and equitable way to assist the counties while balancing the budget.” 

Notably, the Hagerstown Herald-Mail indicates that Democratic Senate President Mike Miller borrowed the pension shift idea from Republican Senate leaders:
Two years ago, [6th Congressional District GOP candidate David Brinkley] and Sen.E.J. Pipkin, the current Senate minority leader, crafted an alternative plan to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed budget. Elements of the alternative plan were adopted, Brinkley said.
Then in February, the Maryland Association of Counties began organizing against the proposal WBAL reported:
The group, called the Maryland Association of Counties, said passing the buck could cost local governments in the neighborhood almost a quarter of a billion dollars.
Politicians said if they're forced to pick up the tab for teacher pensions, they'd be limited not only in what they can spend on schools, but the rest of government as well.

Baltimore City leaders said they may be in the worst shape to try and shoulder the financial burden brought on by paying the cost of teacher pensions.

"Hopefully, we can get to a middle ground right now," said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "There aren't any alternatives. There's not talk of wealth equalization the same way the other education funds are dispersed, so there are a lot of concerns...."

The teacher pension plan is on the table at a time when Maryland schools have been ranked as the best in the nation by a national education magazine.
Some local leaders said they fear that taking on teacher pensions would force them to raise taxes.

Yesterday, reported that Howard County Executive Ken Ulman was aggressively organizing a coalition against the pension shift:
At least 15 people from various county government and community groups — likely urged by Ulman or other vocal leaders involved in the "Stop the Shift" movement — came out to the Howard County Delegation's public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 21 to speak in opposition to the proposed teacher pension shift. No one spoke in favor of the proposal....
Ulman sees it as a $17 million crippling blow to the county's budget....

Howard County residents and groups are standing behind Ulman.

"This pension shift will ask us local governments to pay the bill for something we don't control," County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty said. "We cannot absorb the cost of the pension shift without significantly impacting critical services that our residents need."

Sigaty explained that cuts cannot be made to the education part of the budget because of state-mandated maintenance of effort requirements.

"After we factor in non discretionary costs, like debt service, we are at a point where we only have 30 percent of our general fund budget left to absorb the cost," she said.

Representatives who receive funding under that 30 percent of the budget spoke against the shift.

One was Joel Goodman, chairman of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board, who said he fears the shift would result in cuts to the Department of Recreation and Parks' budget.

"More cuts will surely mean eliminating positions and programs that are basic to the core delivery service of the department," he said.

Jackie Eng, of the Association of Community Services, said she is worried about the potential impact on funding for nonprofit and critical community service organizations. She explained the 30 percent where cuts could be made as "the portion the budget that is already stretched to capacity to meet the human services and public safety needs."

Instead of spending her testimony repeating what others said about the potential impact of a pension shift, Liddy Garcia-Bunuel, executive director of Healthy Howard, offered the delegation other possibilities for raising revenue to chip away at the state's projected deficit, such as closing corporate tax loopholes or restoring the millionaires' tax.

"I think that the state obviously has a lot more opportunities to raise revenue as opposed to the county," she said.

Indeed, why are we going to force austerity measures on counties when we're giving away millions in tax subsidies/breaks to corporations, refusing to close corporate loopholes, and gutting progressive taxation? Maryland Juice also received the following letter, signed by all nine members of the Montgomery County Council:

Letter from Montgomery County Councilmembers Opposing Pension Shift Proposal

Maryland's counties and school systems face a serious problem in Annapolis right now. Governor O'Malley has proposed shifting half the cost of teacher and other pensions from the state to the counties. The County Council, County Executive Ike Leggett, and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), as well as our employee organizations and our counterparts throughout the state, strongly oppose this shift. As Board of Education President Shirley Brandman said on Feb. 14, the shift "will have an immediate negative impact on the important services that our local governments provide."

For Montgomery County, the proposed pension shift would cost $47 million in Fiscal Year 2013 and $315 million over the next five years. The measures proposed to help counties pay the cost are inadequate and may not be enacted in any event.

How much is $47 million? It pays for the jobs of nearly 500 teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other vital County personnel. It is more than the County's general fund budgets for housing, transportation, and environmental protection combined. Our entire budget for libraries is less than $30 million.

The recessionary County budgets of the past three years required painful cuts that have seriously affected our residents and employees alike. For the coming year we face a further budget gap of $135 million and more hard decisions. If we now have to absorb another large burden from the state, there will be real damage to all our vital services—our schools, college, police, fire and rescue, safety net, libraries, parks, housing, transportation, recreation, and many others.

We understand that the state too must balance its budget and faces hard choices. But it is the state that sets the basic structure of pension benefits. In 2006 the state raised pension benefits by 29 percent, retroactive to 1998, but failed to provide sufficient funding. In fact, the state's financial support for the pension fund has fallen short for many years. Counties should not be asked to assume financial responsibility for costs not of their making. We have cut services to the bone, and we have reached our limit on taxes.

Elected officials and concerned organizations throughout the state, including the Maryland Association of Counties, the school community, and employee organizations, have joined together to convey this message to the Governor and the General Assembly. The coalition's web address is There you can learn how you can make a difference. The General Assembly will make its decision on the pension shift soon, probably by mid-March. The stakes for all our County residents are very high.

Council President Roger Berliner
Council Vice President Nancy Navarro
Councilmember Valerie Ervin
Councilmember Nancy Floreen
Councilmember Phil Andrews
Councilmember Marc Elrich
Councilmember George Leventhal
Councilmember Hans Riemer
Councilmember Craig Rice

The unions are activating members on the issue too. See the screencap from Facebook below:

Is it time for a new Senate President, yet? It seems like there is a lot of regional support for change.

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