STATE CAPITOL, PHOENIX -- State government in Arizona in the past three years has made massive cuts to education, given away our money to big corporations, chose to do nothing about foreclosures and hasn’t created a single job.
That toughens the hardship of Arizona’s middle-class families struggling to put food on the table.
But this year, Republicans, who control all of state government, went even further to harm middle-class police officers, firefighters and teachers.
These public safety officers and educators keep our families safe and prepare our kids for the worldwide economy.
Yet because of a few bad apples at the top of the tree, Republicans decided to use a chainsaw to destroy it altogether.
First, let’s be clear: Certain bad actors did scam our state pension system. Take for example, a Phoenix Isaac School District superintendent, who reportedly was allowed to retire, get a pension, then return to work the next day and get the same salary, thus getting both a pension and a salary, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. This happened at the same time the district planned to lay off employees.
We can’t ignore the problem — this is happening.
We also can’t punish police officers and firefighters who risk their lives for us, or teachers who impact our children’s lives because of the malfeasance of a few bad actors.
They are middle-class families who are also struggling to put food on the table.
Yet when Republican lawmakers saw their chance to make life harder for our public safety officers and teachers — middle-class Arizonans — they went for it.
Now the new pension law will do the following to police, firefighters, correctional officers and teachers:
• Make it difficult to recruit and retain public safety officers and protect family members’ when an officer is injured or killed in the line of duty.
• Not allow for a cost of living adjustment for approximately 15 years for employees in the state retirement system, including teachers. The adjustment is currently used to offset increasing health care costs because public safety officers don’t qualify for Medicare or receive social security.
• Require law enforcement personnel to work five years longer before being eligible to retire.
• Increase the amount that public safety officers and teachers are required to contribute from their salary, reducing their take-home pay.
The new law also violates the will of the voters because it trumps a voter-approved initiative, making it unconstitutional.
According to Article 29 of our state Constitution, membership in a public retirement system is a contractual relationship, and public retirement benefits shall not be diminished or impaired, which was approved by voters in 1998.
Requiring employees to pay more into their retirement and receive reduced benefits in the long term violates the state Constitution.
The crafters of this anti-constitutional legislation claimed, falsely, that our retirement systems are on the verge of collapse. Other states across the country did have problems with their pension systems, and some states even had to pay pension benefits out of their general fund.
But Arizona is a different story; our four state pension systems are stable, and the average pension payout is less than extravagant. In fact, teachers receive an average pension of $19,000.
The largest state retirement system, the Arizona State Retirement System, which includes state, county, city employees and teachers, has $27 billion in assets, which is more than three times the entire state budget. The average pension payout to a retiree is $19,840.10 per year.
The next largest fund is the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which includes firefighters and police officers which has net assets of $6.63 billion, and the average pension payout is approximately $36,000 per year. But unlike members in the state system, the public safety system members don’t pay into or receive social security or Medicare benefits. Therefore, they pay for their own health care out of their own pension benefits.
The Corrections Officers Retirement Plan has net assets of $683.2 million, with an average pension payout of $25,499 per year.
The smallest plan is the Elected Officials Retirement Plan, which has net assets of $326.16 million, with an average pension payout of $45,768 per year.
Numbers don’t lie. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that these funds are stable. There was no need for the desperate, last-minute and sweeping legislation aimed at “fixing” a stable system instead of going after the few bad actors.
There was no need to punish middle-class police officers, firefighters and teachers that we rely on every day. It’s not uncommon for police officers to sacrifice their lives in order to protect our way of life here in Arizona. This is not how our state will recruit and retain the best and brightest to serve our communities.
We should be fixing the problem at the top, not penalizing our teachers who receive a less-than-mediocre pension because of the bad acts of just a few.
It doesn’t mean we should cut benefits to the widows of police officers who gave their lives protecting our citizens.
But that’s exactly what Republicans did.
— Daniel Patterson, a Democrat, represents District 29 in the Arizona House of Representatives. District 29 includes parts of Tucson and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
as published in the Arizona Capitol Times, May 27, 2011