Busloads of state employes arrived here today to denounce pension-cutting legislation amid growing signs that the chief proponent of the legislation--which once promised to be among the most controversial measures of the General Assembly session--is looking for a face-saving way out.
The sponsor, Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, met with representatives of the 165,000 state employes, teachers and other workers covered by Maryland's pension systems yesterday afternoon and indicated that he was open to setting up a high-level task force to study the issue instead of pushing his legislation and facing a potentially embarrassing loss, according to those at the meeting.
"I think he figured he was going to have a hard time getting it out of the Senate and even if he did he was going to get killed in the House," where Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin has been cool to pension reform this year, said one person who attended the meeting.
Instead, Steinberg apparently is preparing to announce that he will back off the legislation this year, provided labor acknowledges that problems might still exist in the current pension system and agrees to participate in a task force that would develop pension legislation for next year.
Steinberg said after a public hearing on his bill today that he will back off his legislation if he is shown that some issues need further study.
He acknowledged that much of the sentiment for passing a measure this year seems to have slipped away in the last few weeks since fiscal experts hired to explore the system and its continuing high cost said they needed more time.
The legislature, despite often vitriolic lobbying by labor groups, revamped the pension systems four years ago, setting up a cheaper system alongside the old one in an effort to curtail spiraling pension costs that threatened to bankrupt the state.
Steinberg re-ignited the issue this session when, responding to reports that pension costs were continuing to increase dramatically, he introduced new legislation to freeze the old system, stopping contributions to it, and to force all employes into the new one.
The enthusiasm of the new Senate president has not been matched by most other legislative leaders, including Cardin, who remember the emotional atmosphere surrounding the 1979 reform.
At the same time, the state employe unions, teacher groups and others covered by the retirement system have been increasing their opposition to the legislation.
Today, busloads of employes from Hagerstown and Anne Arundel and Harford counties arrived in the rain to march outside the State House with protest stickers on their lapels and signs in their hands. Then they filled to overflowing the room where the public hearing was to be held.
And when Steinberg arrived to open the testimony--he was one of only two persons testifying in favor of the bill--state police were strategically placed by the biggest crowds and at all entrances.
As it turned out, all went as Steinberg hoped, with each group coming forward with unusually muted rhetoric to say that if problems exist in the system they should be studied by a high-level task force.