As a general rule here, one of the simplest yardsticks here, for measuring the political sensitivity of proposed legislation is the daily legislative calendar, which notes how many times a decision on a bill has been postponed.
By yesterday evening, Maryland's State Senate had postponed seven times a decision on a major restructuring of the pension system for about 150,000 teachers and state government employees throughout Maryland.
During the three weeks of postponements, the measure has been caught up in some of the fiercest political cross currents of this election legislative session. A week ago it seemed on the verge of extinction, but by yesterday it was showing signs of renewed vigor.
There are several reasons the measure evokes so much interest and such fierce passions: it involves future benefits of thousands, and some legislators claim it involves the state's credibility in the nation's financial market-place.
It also involves tens of millions of dollars, and it has arousedsome of the most dogged and persisten political lobbies in the state. Chief among these are the teachers' groups, which are waging a furious battle to defeat the legislation.
"Those teachers, that's a powerful lobby," said Sen. Victor L. Crawford (D! Montgomery). "I've got something like 6,000 of them in my district, and they all have wives or husbands, plus parents and aunts and uncles."
These special interest groups can make you or break you in an election," he added.
At the same time, the decision the legislators eventually make on the question of revamping the state pension system may eventually make or break the state treasury - or so the bill's proponents' claim.
Because of the inflamed sensitivities surrounding the legislation, there has been a growing movement among some senators to put off the whole question until next year, after the fall elections are over.
Proposals of the legislation have called that attitude rank cowardice. "Every year we fiddle with this we are putting our grandch ildren in deeper and deeper hock," said Sen. Julian Lapides (D! Baltimore).
The proponents' argument is that, at present, about 35 percent of the $174 million the state is currently paying out in pension benefits is being funded out of the state's annual budget rather than from monies set aside for the purpose over the years.
If this trend is not reversed, by the year 2015 taxpayers will be payi ng $2.4 billion a year because of the state will be paying 80 percent of the retirement benefits on this pay-as-yougo basis.
A complex solution has been proposed by a state commision headed by Sen. James Clark Jr. (D. Howard), which studied the question for three years and commissioned three separate actuarial studies to assist them.
The solution involves establishement of a new retirement system for state teachers and employes, a system that would bnadvance-funded-as the present one is not - and that would pay considerably reduced benefits to most employees.
Employes in the current system would have the option of joining the new plan or staying put. New employes would havjoin the new program. But opponents of the plan object that most employes would not be totally free in exercising their option, particularly considering that they would be given a bounty for switching to the new plan. All their accummulated contributions to the old plan would be refunded in a lump-sum payment.
The bill provides a tremendous amount of incentive for youngster teachers and people facing financial pressures to switch," said Thomas Gray, chief lobbyist for the Maryland State Teachers Association noting that employes' paychecks would immediately get a littlebigger and their eventual benefits would go down.
Gray also objected that the new plan would eliminate the option that an employe could retire after 30 years service and raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. And most of all, Gray and his fellow teachers' union officials object to the reduction in retirement benefits.
They have been adept in making their objections known. Hundreds of angry postcards, possibly even thousands, have poured into legislators' mailboxes here; union officials like Henry Heller of the Montgomery County Education Association make constantk calls to the phones in the Senate lounge , persuading senators to vote to do away with the bill.
By the end of last week, they had almost succeeded. After lengthy denunciations of the new pension progpsal, it appeared that Sen, Roy Staten (D. Baltimore County) had the votes to send the billback to Clark's Finance Committee for further study, in effect leaving it to suffocate slowly there.
"The bill was just about on the ropes at that point. Hallwas about to make the motion (to send it back to committee)," said Clark. But Clark was quicker: he managed to get the decision postponed until Wednesday.
In the intervening time, Clark mounted an effort to win back some votes the teachers had taken away. Acting Gov. Blair Lee III joined him in twisting legislative arms, and angry editorials appeared in Baltimore newspapers decrying the legislators' desire to put the decision off for a year. After three hours debate Wednesday, the move to send the bill back to committee was defeated, 28 to 18.
The fate of the legislation is by no means certain, however, thanks in part to the attitude of benign neglect adopted by Senate President Steny Hoyer (D. Prince George's).