A controversial and heavily lobbied bill to revamp the state's pension system whizzed through a first hearing before the full Senate today but ran into opposition from Gov. Harry Hughes.
The bill, sponsored by Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, would force about 75,000 state employes and school teachers currently covered by a retirement system with an unlimited annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) into a new system set up in 1979 that limits the annual COLA to no more than 3 percent.
Steinberg has been pushing the bill as a way to reduce rapidly raising state retirement costs.
It appeared, from the lack of debate during the presentation of the bill yesterday, that the Senate will approve the bill and send it to the House, probably on Tuesday. The House is expected to treat the pension bill with much less enthusiasm, in large part because of coolness to it by the House leadership.
Hughes, in his most definitive statement on the issue to date, said he has concerns about approving a major overhaul of the pension system before the state's pension analysts finish studying the problems.
Hughes said at a press conference yesterday that he is "inclined right now not to support that bill as it is. I think we have to come out of here (the current legislative session) with some action (such as a summer study task force) that recognizes there is a problem and that we're not going to ignore it."
Gubernatorial aides said Hughes' desire for a summer study of the issue is intended to show bond houses that set the state's bond rating that Maryland is taking action to reduce its mounting pension debt, estimated to be $5 billion in about 40 years.
Labor officials, briefly buoyed by Hughes' statements, were quickly preparing again for a fight after the Senate hearing, at which Steinberg was able to push the bill through in just a few minutes. "He's trying to steamroller it, it's obvious," said state employe lobbyist Joseph Adler. "The effort now will be in the House."
In other matters today, the governor, who this week has been moving to counteract an impression that he is uninterested this session, said he vehemently opposes a financial institutions deregulation bill before the Senate and indicated he might veto it if it passes both houses intact.
Hughes said the bill, put in on behalf of the state's banks, does not have adequate consumer protections, unlike a bill Hughes introduced that still has not been scheduled for a hearing.
The Senate bill has a host of fees that Hughes does not like, allows interest on credit cards to be charged from the day the purchase is made and does not include penalties for financial institutions that overcharge on interest.
According to legislative leaders, the bill should have no trouble clearing the Senate and is likely to be approved by the House with some amendments.
It is in the House that Hughes aides say they are hoping to either have the bill stalled and replaced by the administration measure or amended to preserve many of the consumer protections supported by Hughes.