The Boston Globe
Friday, June 16, 2000
Teachers' retirement plan eyed by others
Cellucci fears shortfall as other public employees
plan to seek better benefits
By Michael Crowley
As Beacon Hill lawmakers prepare to approve a measure
allowing thousands of public school teachers to retire early with sweetened pension benefits, a host of other public
employee unions are now asking: What about us?
To the dismay of the Cellucci administration and fiscal
watchdogs, union lobbyists are using the teacher retirement measure's imminent passage as ammunition to shoot for similar
"I would like to see something move, seeing where the
teachers are getting theirs now," said Bob McCarthy, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of Massachusetts,
which represents 13,000 members. "It makes sense that if they do it for one [group], there's going to be pressure from other
employees," McCarthy said.
That pressure is already being felt at the State House,
where last week, prison guards lobbied for a more generous package that would let them retire up to five years early with
full pension benefits.
And police officers are joining with firefighters to push
legislation letting them retire with a so-called 75/25 benefit: after 25 years of service, regardless of age, they would
receive 75 percent of their pay.
It's an annual ritual for public employee unions to bang on
lawmakers' doors seeking earlier retirement ages with more generous pension benefits. But with Massachusetts teachers
almost certain to enjoy bigger pensions and retirements long before age 60, many say a me-too
attitude from other unions will be hard to dispute.
"There's going to be an extraordinary amount of pressure
placed on every elected official to recalibrate everyone's pensions," says House Public Service Committee chairman Paul
To some, that new dynamic is cause for alarm, bringing the
potential for enormous stress on the state's pension funds, as well as state and local budgets. It is estimated the teacher
bill alone would cost the state about $50 million per year.
What's more, critics fear that other early retirement bills
might cause a sudden shortage of key workers in other areas of state and local government.
Governor Paul Cellucci has vetoed the teacher retirement
bill, which he says is too expensive and would drain needed veteran teachers from the state's classrooms. But the
Legislature, which unanimously approved the measure, is expected to override the veto easily this month.
"This is only the beginning," says Michael Widmer, executive
director of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-funded group that monitors the state budget. "Once we
start down this path it's going to be very difficult to argue that other groups are less-deserving
Indeed, the teacher bill's backers have argued that educators deserve special treatment
because they work under great duress and play a critical social role. But critics of
the measure warn that the same logic can be applied to tens of thousands of other public
employees -- from nurses to highway engineers -- who also hold admirable and difficult jobs.
"There is a fairness issue," said Cellucci spokesman John
Birtwell. "How do you value the contribution of one worker over another worker?"
To the firefighters' McCarthy, there's scant reason to give
teachers preferential treatment. "We put our lives on the line, and our bodies deteriorate quicker, too," he says. "It's a more
At the moment, McCarthy says he is lobbying House leaders to
act on a bill approved earlier this year by the Legislature's Joint Public Service Committee. The bill would provide the
75/25 benefits to all public safety workers in the state pension category known as Group 4.
Group 4 employees can now retire as young as 45, but if they
do, they collect a pension equal to less than half their salary. The new measure would allow for even earlier
retirements, but more significantly, dramatically boost benefit levels for early retirees -- a potential
difference of tens of thousands of dollars per year to some pensioners.
Most state employees, classified as Group 1, must work until
they are 65 before reaching their maximum pension benefit level.
McCarthy said he hopes the measure comes to the House floor
before the July 31 end of the legislative session, but that it might have to wait until next year.
Backers of new pension plans for public safety officers give
vague answers when asked about the price of such changes, saying much of the cost can be offset by increased worker
But local government representatives say there is grave
concern that possible mass retirements could create personnel shortages and costly new pension mandates from Beacon
Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts
Municipal Association, noted that local governments must pay the pensions of police officers, firefighters, and other
categories of workers who may be seeking new benefits. Cities and towns will also have to
pick up health care costs for teachers who retire early, he added.
"One of the questions posed here by the early retirement
bill for teachers is whether it is just a big domino that will knock down other dominoes, in a line of retirement bills that
will collapse our pension system," Beckwith said.
He added that his greatest concern was that advocates of
early retirement bills had not carefully examined their impact, and noted that there has yet to be a thorough study of the
proposed teacher retirement plan.
"Because it seems obscure, because it's a pension plan and
peoples' eyes glaze over, there's not as much scrutiny as there needs to be," he said. "But we're talking about billions of
dollars of taxpayers' and public employees' money."
The Telegram & Gazette
Thursday, June 15, 2000
A crucial veto
Retirement bill would undermine public education
We continue to be astounded by the eerie silence accompanying the Legislative action on a
misguided early retirement benefit for teachers.
The proposal, given top priority by teachers unions, would
make 8,500 veteran teachers -- many in their early to mid-50s -- eligible to retire immediately, and 23,000 more within five
The measure would have far-reaching negative consequences --
not only in the public schools, but, ultimately, throughout municipal and state government. Yet, except for Gov.
Paul Cellucci, few elected officials have had the courage to speak out against it.
In vetoing the measure on Sunday, Mr. Cellucci said, "This
legislation represents an abandonment of education reform and our schoolchildren by the Legislature."
Indeed, the measure would spark an exodus of experienced
educators at a crucial juncture of education reform and at a time when Massachusetts faces a shortage of teachers. At the
same time, it would inequitably boost the pension contribution of teachers entering the system.
Although the actual costs are unknown, the retirement perk
could add as much as $1 billion to state pension costs over the next 20 years. After 30 years in the classroom, many retirees
conceivably could draw from the pension fund for the next 30, 40 or more years.
Finding qualified replacements would be a huge problem for
local officials -- but hardly the only one.
Early retirement for teachers, if enacted, certainly would
bring demands for similar benefits from other public employee unions. The long-term impact on municipal budgets would be
Yet the package sailed through the Legislature, on uncontested voice votes. As one
Statehouse observer noted, "The Legislature has devoted more debate to the state bird and
the state cookie."
Respected organizations, including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Association and the
Massachusetts Municipal Association, have sounded warnings about the measure. However,
Mr. Cellucci -- virtually alone among elected officials -- has attempted to stop, or at least
slow, the legislative juggernaut.
A legislative vote for the retirement bill would have serious consequences in public education
and throughout municipal and state government. Lawmakers should do the right
thing and uphold the governor's veto.