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Police unions roll up votes to restore bonus

An effort to undo panel's $50m cut

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / April 21, 2009
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Massachusetts police unions have won enough early support in the House to restore $50 million to the budget and protect generous pay bonuses for police officers who hold college degrees, securing a potential victory even as groups representing the homeless and disadvantaged struggle for funding.

Police already have at least 81 representatives signed up to back their cause, a majority of the 160-member House, assuring a win during next week's budget debate unless House leaders try to reverse the tide.

The so-called Quinn Bill, passed in 1970, awards thousands of dollars in extra money to police officers who have earned college degrees, and it has long been a source of complaints about unfair and expensive union benefits.

The rapid success by the powerful police unions, scored just a few days after the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled the $50 million cut Wednesday, stands in contrast to the uphill battle facing social-service advocates who are lobbying lawmakers to restore funding to fight homelessness, provide home care to the elderly, and feed the needy.

A wide network that includes public health, social services, and other advocates is planning a rally tomorrow at the State House to push for more taxes and restored funding to their programs. Many lawmakers have been sympathetic to their pleas, but there has been nowhere near the groundswell that developed for the police unions.

House members who signed on to two amendments to restore the money said the full range of police compensation and education incentives needed to be protected during a recession.

"I don't know if you can emphasize enough the impacts of having an educated police force," said Representative Christopher G. Fallon, a Malden Democrat and lead sponsor of the amendment to restore funding.

"I don't think the state, given this economic time, should be telling people: 'By the way we're going to be cutting your pay. We're gong to be cutting an incentive,' " he said.

House budget writers stunned police unions last week when their budget proposal completely eliminated funding for the Quinn Bill. Union officials knew the money would probably be reduced - Governor Deval Patrick had proposed cutting spending on the program to $42.2 million - but they did not expect it to be scrapped altogether.

"It just doesn't seem fair; it's not fair to just wipe it right out of the budget like that," said Thomas Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association. "Certainly it was a surprise. The many friends we have in the Legislature see through the fundamental unfairness of it all."

The Quinn bill, which was passed in 1970, supplies salary boosts to police officers who earn a law enforcement, criminal justice, or law degree. The officer, who must attend a college approved by the state, gets a 10 percent boost in his base pay for an associate's degree; 20 percent for a bachelor's degree; and 25 percent for a master's or law degree.

The program typically costs taxpayers about $100 million a year, split equally between the state and local communities where the officers work.

The impact of eliminating state funding would depend on individual union contracts. In some cases, it would mean that police officers would take a pay cut. But in others, local taxpayers would have to pick up the state's share and pay the full amount of the bonuses.

The union effort to restore the funding is providing a test of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo's leadership. He has pledged to allow House members more latitude to decide issues for themselves, instead of attempting to strong-arm votes. His next move could signal what direction he and the Legislature will take this year as pensions and other special benefits for public employees have become the focus of public ire. DeLeo declined requests for comment yesterday.

Representative Charles A. Murphy, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, said that "we'll have a debate on the issue," but that other programs may have to be cut if the Quinn Bill funding is restored.

"The practical effect is for us to fund $52 million; that's $52 million not going to, well, pick a program," Murphy said yesterday. "It all comes down to: 'How you going to pay for it, folks? What are you going to cut so you can restore it?' The whole thing has been a balancing act."

The number of lawmakers who signed onto the amendment demonstrates the political clout that police unions still carry. Within two days, the unions were able to get 80 House lawmakers, including several Republicans, to sign onto two amendments that would fund the program at $51.2 million.

A third amendment, filed by an 81st lawmaker - Representative John H. Rogers, a Norwood Democrat - would establish funding at $50.2 million. Rogers has no cosponsors.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts to change the Quinn Bill. In 2001, for example, the House abandoned an overhaul of the system after intense lobbying by police interests. In 2003, there was an effort to provide officers with lump sums, rather than a percentage of their base pay, but the changes collapsed when there were disagreements between legislators and Governor Mitt Romney.

The amendments to restore funding to the Quinn Bill are among 978 filed by last Friday's amendment-filing deadline; the overall number of amendments, mostly requests for local funding for pet projects, was down about 35 percent from last year, reflecting more realistic expectations among lawmakers.

"It's a direct result of the budget downfall," said Representative Martin J. Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat, filing half the number of amendments he has in the past. "It's definitely due to the economy. I don't want to give anyone false expectations by filing an amendment only to have it fail or have to withdraw it."

While the numbers may be lower, lawmakers have still submitted a wide range of local earmarks.

Also, as expected, House members filed a wide array of tax-related amendments, including raising the meals taxes, sales taxes, and the gas tax; efforts to get new taxes have not yet won broad support in the Legislature.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.