President Carter has vetoed a District of Columbia pension reform measure that would have provided a $1.6 billion federal subsidy to the city over the next 25 years, the White House announced yesterday.
"I am . . . of the view," the president said in a veto message, "that the . . . bill overstates the degree of federal responsibility" toward the debt of the pension programs covering D.C. police, firefighters, judges and school employes.
Also, the president said, "this proposal fails to recognize that a large part of that ($1.6 billion) liability derives from abuses of the disability retirement statutes which were permitted to flourish by those responsible for their effective administration." The laws are administered by the D.C. government.
A top city official said he was disappointed by the decision, which was not entirely unexpected. An officer of the D.C. firefighters union, one of the measure's chief potential beneficiaries, called the veto "extremely upsetting."
The president invoked the pocket veto at Camp David on Saturday by declining to approve the legislation while Congress is out of session. His decision kills the measure for this year.
An aide of Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.), a leading sponsor of the reform legislation, said he expects the measure to be redrafted and introduced again next year. Eagleton, who was traveling in this home state yesterday, could not be reached for comment.
The measure, a product of nearly four years of congressional drafting and deliberations, had been pushed by city officials and a coalition of liberal and conservative legislators. It was viewed widely as a way to prevent ultimate bankruptcy of the city under a mounting pension debt.
According to city government projections, the total cost of retirement benefits over the life of the vetoed bill would have been $6.1 billion. The federal share, $1.6 billion, would have been 27 percent of the total. Of the balance, about $3.9 billion would be paid by the city and more than $600 million by the employes, through payroll deductions.
As approved by Congress, the measure would have tightened the rules on disability retirement. It would have immediately eliminated the right of police and firefighters to retire on full disability because of aggravated off-duty injuries. It would have tightened other disability provisions for newly hired personnel but not those already on the payroll.
"Although the bill's benefits and disability retirement reforms are desirable," the president said in his message, "its failure to apply these reforms to current employes constitutes a serious and costly deficiency."
Public attention was focused on the retirement system early this year when three high-ranking officials - former fire chief Burton W. Johnson, former police chief Maurice J. Cullinane and former assistant police chief Tillmon B. O'Bryant - retired in quick succession on full tax-free disability pensions after long, active careers.
In an effort to force administrative reforms, the House Appropriations Committee cut $10 million from the city's requested $65 million in police and fire pension funds for the 1979 fiscal year.
The committee insisted that the city should take steps to ensure that disability retirements should become the exception rather than the rule.
The pension program affected by the presidential veto was established in stages by Congress, which never provided for setting up a fund to make payments. The money has been included in each year's D.C. operating budget.
If that system were to continue, city officials have forecast that before the turn of the century benefit payments to retirees would exceed the active annual payrolls of the affected agencies.
Other city employes are covered by the federal civil service retirement system, to which the city makes annual payments. The president, in his veto message, said the rejected proposal to put $1.6 billion into the city's pension programs "undervalues or ignores the significance" of the city's participation in the federally subsidized civil service program.
The president's own White House task force on D.C. problems agreed last year to subsidize the city's unfunded pension plans. Ultimately, the issue became the amount.
The White House initially proposed $462 million. Congress ultimately approved the $1.6 billion proposed by Eagleton, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee that handles D.C. legislation.
A week age, it was reported that a veto was being considered. That led Eagleton and Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) to send a telegram urging the president to sign the bill. The public employe department of the AFL-CIO did likewise.
Mayor Walter E. Washington could not be reached for comment, but another D.C. official, who would not be quoted by name, called the presidential veto a disappointment. City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker said, "The fact that there have been some abuses did not absolve the federal government of (financial) responsibility."
Congressional Del. Walter E. Faunt-that the city "has been singled out . . . roy (D-D.C.), who said he had lobbied for presidential approval, asserted that the city "has been singled out . . . as part of the (president's) anti-inflation program."
David A. Ryan, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association, an AFL-CIO affiliate, said the veto "makes a farce of the (presidential) task force on D.C." and is a slap at public employe unions that supported the president's candidacy in 1976.