The effort to cut Maryland's spiraling pension costs came to an abrupt end today when members of a House subcommittee, some humming a funeral dirge, voted to kill a wide reaching pension reduction bill.
The vote came after the subcommittee met privately with House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and his leadership and were told that the pension bill, which easily passed the Senate last week, lacked House support and should be disposed of.
The action, which is expected to be easily ratified by the full House, took less than 10 minutes during a meeting filled with macabre jokes. It effectively ends all possibility of action this year on pension costs, which have continued to drain state funds despite a massive overhauling in 1979 of the retirement systems.
"Grant him, O Lord, eternal rest," intoned Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), just before introducing the motion to kill the bill. "The pension problem represents a cancer on the general fund. We have to do something but we should do something in 1984."
Supporters of the bill, which would have reduced annual state costs $65 million by cutting benefits for some 56,000 current state employes and school teachers, said it was the final solution to the pension problems.
According to estimates, Maryland owes $5 billion in future retirement benefits for employes now on the payroll. That debt is increasing by $500 million a year.
The subcommittee action was seen as a strong victory for labor unions representing state employes and teachers, who had organized a month-long, letter-and-telephone campaign against the bill.
But those who pushed the measure through the Senate, including the bill's sponsor Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg, said the House was not acting in a fiscally responsible manner. Some charged that Cardin, who is eyeing a race for governor in 1986, had orchestrated the House action in order to curry favor with the politically active unions.
"Maybe he felt it wouldn't make it on the House side, but the political considerations were there," said Sen. Dennis Rasmussen (D-Baltimore County).
Cardin, strongly denying the charge, called the bill "premature." He added, "We have an obligation that we consult with the people who will be affected and we haven't done that this year."
In February, pension analysts hired by the state to come up with ways to keep down costs said they were befuddled by the complex retirement system and needed more time to study the issue.
The board of trustees of the retirement system gave them until June. On the basis of that delay, Gov. Harry Hughes recently said he did not support Steinberg's bill, but favored a special summer study of the issue such as that adopted by the subcommittee today.
Steinberg, who made passage of the pension bill in the Senate a test of his political leadership, today said he was "disappointed" but expected the issue to return next year. "In the 17 years I've been here, I've never seen a major bill passed in only one session," he said.
The 1979 pension reform, which took two years to pass, set up a 3 percent cap on the annual cost-of-living increase for retirees, alongside the state's older system. The older system has an unlimited cost of living, but requires a 5 percent employe contribution.
The 1979 system, providing benefits some 15 percent below the old system, was mandatory for all employes and teachers hired after 1980 and voluntary for any others. Fiscal analysts now say that one of the primary reasons pension costs have remained unexpectedly high was that fewer teachers than expected transferred into the new system because of an active lobbying campaign by their union.
Steinberg's bill would have forced everyone in the old system into the 1979 system. Past benefits accrued under the old system would have been paid as promised but all new benefits would have been calculated through the new system.