Minutes before asking Louisiana senators to endorse a proposal that he said would put most of the state’s firefighters on equal footing with the other retirement plans paid for by local governments, Sen. Barrow Peacock last week took a quick sounding of his colleagues and decided to pull the bill, at least for awhile.
The support he thought was there for Senate Bill 3 had quickly evaporated after Gov. John Bel Edwards’ aides let it be known that the governor opposed the idea, saying it would decrease the benefits for newly hired firefighters.
“It made it politically uncomfortable for some senators,” Peacock said. “I understand the governor wants to support people who have helped him in the past. But this is something that I feel like if we don’t make these small steps, we make it so bad that the door slams on our retirement systems, and then we have drastic change.”
The Shreveport Republican, who chairs the Senate Retirement Committee and sponsored SB3, never spoke directly to Edwards.
The legislation was backed by the Louisiana Municipal Association, which represents the local governments who pay a portion of the retirement benefits.
The measure is opposed by the Professional Firefighters Association of Louisiana, the union, because it would lower the benefits available for the firemen working for most municipalities, but not Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which have their own retirement systems. SB3 would apply to members of the Firefighters’ Retirement System of Louisiana.
The idea of SB3 was to change some calculations used to determine when a firefighter could retire and how much the retiree would get each month. It would increase the time served from 25 years to 30 years to receive full benefits and would decrease the accrual rate for the benefits to 3 percent, going up to 3 1? 3 percent only after the firefighter worked for 30 years. It’s the same package that retirement systems for local law enforcement and municipal workers have, Peacock said.
Ronnie Harris, the former mayor of Gretna who now heads the LMA, backed the legislation.
Harris said a key uncertainty in a mayor’s annual budget is how much pensions are going to cost — and retirement is one of the costs that increase every year, straining the resources of local government. “You have certain things on the balance sheet. How do you control costs? You attempt to do it through a bill like Senate Bill 3,” Harris said.
But the firefighters say they cut a deal in 2009 specifically to avoid a lower accrual rate and longer time to qualify for a full retirement. The firefighters agreed to contribute 2 percent more than the others to their pension plans.
Chad Major, of the firefighters union, said the agreement came because the changes were part of a revamp that would separate employees who have hazardous duties from those who do not. Police have a lot of clerks and aides who never hit the streets. But firefighters do not.
So, firefighters agreed, instead, to increase their pension contributions by 25 percent, which saved the cities $20 million over five years. The changes in SB3 are projected to save only $4 million, he said.
And if a firefighter was injured in the line of duty one day shy of their 30th work anniversary, they would be forced to retire at 90 percent of their benefits, Major said.
When asked for comment, Edwards’ spokesman Richard Carbo said in a prepared statement: “Firefighters across Louisiana voluntarily increased their employee contributions in recent years to improve the health of their retirement system, but this bill proposed more drastic changes that unfairly penalize firefighters without their input.”
Peacock, who was elected after the deal was cut, is about three votes shy of the majority needed to win approval in the 39-member body.
Peacock said he will hold the bill back from a full vote by the Senate and try to persuade enough senators to change their minds and push the green light on the voting machine that indicates assent.
“There’s going to be pressure on municipalities to pay more to fund the retirement system and maybe that will get the attention of some members,” Peacock said. “We talk about pension reform, but there’s not the will for some of the senators to push that green button to make that reform necessary going forward.”
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/