Lucrative pensions for few take hit in Senate

Friday, February 11, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A lucrative pension plan enjoyed by a handful of state workers would be eliminated under legislation that won first-round approval in the Missouri Senate on Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, seeks to end a special pension system that provides extra retirement benefits for certain administrative law judges and others in quasi-judicial posts. All employees hired to such positions after Aug. 28, when the measure would take effect, would instead be included in the Missouri State Employees' Retirement System, the standard state pension plan.

"This is something that truly needs to end in Jefferson City," Crowell said.

The Senate approved the bill on a voice vote. A second vote is required to send it to the House of Representatives.

During the administration of former governor Bob Holden, frequent turnover on the three-member Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, one of the few groups covered by the special system, sparked controversy over the plan. Those with previous state employment, particularly former lawmakers, were granted significant boosts in their retirement benefits with just brief service on the commission. In the most egregious case, one Holden appointee served just 14 days on the panel yet still qualified for the benefits.

When a Senate committee debated the issue last month, some senators preferred requiring those covered by the special system to serve for three years before being eligible for the added benefits. During Thursday's floor debate, Crowell, the committee chairman, insisted that lawmakers "demolish this special system from this point on."

Because of state and federal laws governing pension plans, Crowell said it wouldn't be legal to attempt to retroactively strip past beneficiaries of the special system of their extra benefits.

State Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, lamented the fact that the legislature can't reduce the pensions of those he believes have abused the system.

"If they had any pride, they wouldn't take the money," Engler said.

The legislature established the special plan in 1984. Over the years, lawmakers repeatedly expanded the system to cover more -- but not all -- workers in quasi-judicial roles. According to state retirement system executive director Gary Findlay, 57 active state employees are currently covered by the special plan.

Crowell's bill garnered strong bipartisan Senate support. State Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis, called the special system "an injustice to the taxpayers of this state."

Circuit and appellate judges also have a separate pension plan, although it isn't as lucrative as the one Crowell's bill targets. Concerned by what he views as judicial activism, state Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, proposed an amendment to the bill to also put those judges under the normal state retirement system.

"The courts aren't listening," Gross said. "They seem to rise above the public interest in their proceedings."

After making his point, however, Gross withdrew the amendment.

The bill is SB 202.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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