Saturday, 2:15 PM
By Matt Viser, Globe Staff
The State Senate this afternoon unanimously approved a pension reform package to eliminate some of the generous deals and hidden provisions that have allowed some Massachusetts public employees to win enhanced retirement benefits.
"The purpose of this bill was to close the obvious loopholes," said Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, a Lowell Democrat and chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “We think it does restore public confidence.”
The Senate rejected several Republican-led amendments to make the laws even tighter, but it did approve an amendment to prohibit the state pension fund from giving bonuses to its employees during a year when the pension fund loses money.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo this morning came out in support of at least two areas of pension reform that the Senate approved, including a change that would remove a provision that credits a full year of service to employees after they have worked as little as one day in that year.
DeLeo also said he supports a provision that would bar employees from receiving an accidental disability benefit after being injured while filling in for a supervisor. Some Boston firefighters have been collecting benefits based on their bosses' higher pay level after getting injured on the job while subbing for them.
The House will take up the pension reform plan in the next few weeks, and it has the support of Governor Deval Patrick, who announced a similar plan last week.
The Senate legislation eliminates the provision that allows elected officials to boost their pensions if they are not nominated or reelected. The Senate plan would also establish a commission to recommend broader pension changes by Sept. 1.
Lawmakers have been eager to project that they are busy on major changes. Last week, the Senate approved a transportation overhaul, which the House plans to take up next week. The House adopted an ethics reform proposal last week.
The moves were being made in response to diminishing public confidence in the ability of elected officials to tighten state ethics and lobbying laws. A recent poll of 400 Massachusetts voters indicated that only 12 percent rated the level of ethics as good or excellent.
The Globe has published stories about town moderators and a library trustee who counted their volunteer service toward pensions and public officials who began collecting early, enhanced pensions after they were fired from state government.
The Globe reported Sunday that a majority of Revere's 11 part-time city councilors are collecting full pensions while remaining on the municipal payroll and getting about $25,000 in annual council compensation.
The Senate plan also:
-- Prohibits municipal officials from being able to establish pension credit for time spent working in nonpaying public jobs. The law has allowed officials such as two town moderators from Canton and Milton, as well as lobbyist John A. Brennan Jr., to receive pension credit for essentially volunteer work.
-- Limits the definition of "compensation" to only wages and salary, and specifically excludes housing benefits, annuities, or the use of motor vehicles. This would prevent presidents at the state's public colleges and universities from counting housing and transportation allowances as compensation. William Bulger, a former University of Massachusetts president, fought for this perk and won, increasing his pension by $17,000 to $196,000 a year.
-- Prohibits public employees from combining their pensions from two separate positions, which can increase the overall pension. Instead, an individual who is a member of two or more systems must retire separately from each system.
-- Aligns the pensions of MBTA employees with the state system and eliminates the policy that allows employees with 23 years of service to retire with benefits regardless of their age. The provision has allowed workers to retire in their 40s and then take other jobs while collecting pensions.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.