By DYLAN WAUGH
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 6, 2009)—Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, announced Friday he plans to introduce legislation next week requiring that counties pay for teacher pension costs for new hires.
Counties also would absorb pension costs related to pay increases given to current educators.
Who should shoulder teacher pension costs, currently paid by the state, has been a topic of spirited debate this session in light of the state's $2 billion budget deficit.
Miller's bill isn't expected to affect state contributions to teacher pensions for next year's budget, a projected $760 million—22 percent higher than this year's total. The bill would affect hires and pay raises made after July 1, of this year.
Currently, hiring and pay raise decisions are made at the county level by local school boards with the state footing the bill for the pension costs associated with those moves. At least some of the $137 million increase in pension costs for next year can be attributed to new hires and raises.
"New money—new hires, new pay increases—that would go to the people responsible for negotiating, that would be the counties," Miller said after Friday's Senate session. "When you give these huge pay increases—5, 6, 8 percent—the state has nothing to do with it, (the counties are) going to have to pick up those costs."
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, is willing to discuss the issue, said Spokeswoman Alexandra Hughes.
"The Speaker generally feels this is a philosophical argument that we definitely need to have," she said. "Whether or not it's a solution for the current budget is up for debate."
The House of Delegates is considered by some to be less open to shifting teacher pensions to the counties, but Miller balked at the suggestion that the House is on record opposing the issue.
"The House hasn't voted on it," he said. "It's certainly not a dead issue."
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, does not like the idea.
"It will more than do damage to the counties, it will do damage to the school systems," he said.
Senate Minority Leader Allan Kittleman, R-Carroll, said he'll need to examine the bill before passing judgment, but thinks "it's definitely an issue that needs to be discussed."
"I certainly understand the Senate President's thought process," Kittleman said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, kept teacher pension responsibilities with the state in the fiscal 2010 budget he released in January, despite speculation to the contrary.
"The Governor hasn't taken a position on a bill he hasn't seen or read yet," said O'Malley Spokesman Shaun Adamec in an email. "Obviously, by including 100 percent funding of teacher pensions in his 2010 budget, Gov. O'Malley has demonstrated his commitment to public education in Maryland."
County leaders have largely opposed the idea of assuming pension responsibilities, claiming such a move would cripple budgets already facing yawning deficits. Layoffs have been rumored for Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, in addition to the 700 for state employees proposed in O'Malley's budget.
Miller acknowledged some counties are facing daunting fiscal issues of their own, but said state workers have suffered enough already.
"It's just really not fair for our workers to be furloughed, no pay increases, no merit increases," he said.
Lawmakers offered varied opinions on the prospects of Miller's proposed legislation.
"I think it will be a bloodbath if he goes forward with it in an aggressive way," Pinsky said.
But recognizing Miller's substantial political clout, Pinsky was wary of ruling the bill out.
"That doesn't mean it's DOA, by a long shot," he said.
Kittleman said the bill "would have a reasonable chance" if it reaches the Senate floor.
Miller was far from optimistic, but said the debate needs to be had.
"The object of being a leader is to bring issues to the forefront," he said. "I'm going to put it out there and let them discuss it and see where it goes."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.