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Attacked and amended, Adams’ pension bill moves forward

An amended pension-reform bill, sponsored by Arizona Speaker of the House Kirk Adams, barely survived a stormy House committee hearing on Thursday.

Twenty-one people testified about the bill, and all but one criticized it.

Representatives from unions for police officers and firefighters, many of them retirees from those public-safety occupations, told members of the House Employment and Regulatory Affairs Committee of the dangers of their jobs and the lasting physical impairments that demand their pensions be large enough to cover their health insurance costs.

Other speakers implored the legislators not to rush through the bill, to make changes and amendments as needed. Even many of the union representatives said they agreed with some elements of the bill, but said that others need work.

And many of the speakers questioned the legality of going back on the contractual agreements for current government employees, who are less affected than new hires under Adams’ bill, but still would have to increase their contribution over five years into their retirement fund until it matched the employer’s contribution.

Adams spoke at the hearing to describe the three considerations he said he had in mind when drafting the bill: protecting the taxpayer, eliminating the rare abuses in the system, and protecting the teachers, police officers, firefighters and other public employees hoping to receive benefits one day.

“I recognize that there are some tough choices in this bill,” Adams said. “But it’s critical that this Legislature is willing to make those tough choices today.”

Most of the speakers at the committee hearing, however, made it clear they did not think the bill was protecting their interests.

“I was told, ‘You give us this, if you survive for at least 20 years, you can get this in return,’” said John Ortolano, president of the Arizona chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police and a retired police officer. “Please tell me you will keep that promise.”

Brian Livingston, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, said he felt as though his organization’s members were being vilified – a sentiment echoed by many others speaking on behalf of public employees. But he argued that it was neither his fault, nor the fault of the people he represented, that the pension system was broke.

“Now, because of administrative failure and the economic decline we experienced from 2007 to the current day, we’re going back to these members to say, ‘Give us more. It’s your fault,’” Livingston said. “I find that remarkable.”

Steve Ramos, speaking on behalf of the Arizona Education Association and AEA Retired, said he supported many measures in the bill, including the provisions to end the practice of double-dipping, whereby a retiree collecting a pension goes back to work for the state. He argued that the 12-month delay before charging the alternative contribution rate to the employer should be shortened.

Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, was the only speaker in support of the bill. He said it was important that something be done to reform the pension system, both because of the fiscal situation the state was in and the public perception of the system.

After nearly two hours of testimony, the committee voted 5-4 to approve the bill with a handful of amendments, including one that extended the cost of living adjustment for some employees. The vote was mostly along party lines, with Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction

Many of the representatives who voted “no” said the deal-breaker was the apparent lack of input from retirees and the unions in the writing of the bill. Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, said that the bill in its present form was unacceptable.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do something like this, and with all due respect to the speaker, I think we’re doing this the wrong way,” he said.

But committee chairman Bob Robson, R-Chandler, said it was important to pass the bill out of the committee so it could move forward and the necessary changes could be made.

“I think every one of us has a tinge of heartburn about some of this, but I recognize that it needs to move forward,” he said. “It’s not the final product. But it’s work towards a final product.”

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