Legislature Upholds Protection Of Basic Pension Benefits

SEPTEMBER 2004
- Spousal Benefit Restored For Current Members - By restoring the spousal benefit for current retirement system
members, the Legislature sent a clear message - basic pension rights
will be protected under the law. But along with its broader
implications, there's the human side of the story.

There's
only one way to describe the reaction of members, hurt by the repeal of
the spousal benefit, to the news that the benefit had been restored for
them - overjoyed. "When I got the phone call from the Association with
the good news, I was overcome," says Nancy Nadeau, who has been the
central figure in our legal battle against repeal. "I couldn't wait to
tell my husband that I'd be joining him in the (retiree) ranks and as a
full-fledged Association member."

Under
the spousal benefit a public employee, not yet age fifty-five and
married to another public employee who retires before them, could have
their retirement calculated as if they were age fifty-five. What the
law basically did was allow couples, who had been in public service
together, to also retire together and receive a decent amount of
pension in the process.

"Unfortunately
the spousal benefit was repealed last year and since then the fight
began to restore it for those already in the retirement system,"
reports Association Counsel Bill Rehrey. "Beyond helping those directly
hurt by the repeal, we had to take a stand, for all our members,
against what we perceived as an attempt to undermine basic pension
rights and benefits."

In addition to
the Association efforts, the Massachusetts Teachers' Association (MTA)
sued the Teachers' Retirement Board (TRB) over the spousal benefit's
repeal. In its lawsuit, the MTA claimed that the repeal violated the
federal constitution and law, when it was applied to teachers who were
TRB members before the repeal's effective date.

At
the same time that these legal challenges were underway, relief from
the repeal was also being sought through the Legislature. "We must
recognize the MTA's work with us in this regard," reports Legislative
Chairman Bill Hill.

"They were
instrumental in having Sen. Sue Tucker (D-Andover) insert a provision
in the budget that basically excluded current members of the retirement
system from the repeal. With that provision in the budget, we went to
work with them and other groups to make it law."

But the road to final passage was not smooth. That's because Governor Romney vetoed the provision when he signed the budget.

And
here's where the good news comes in. Both the House and Senate
unanimously voted to override the governor's veto during the final days
of the formal session.

According to
the law now on the books, a married couple, both of whom were members
of a retirement system before November 1, 2003, can still apply the
spousal benefit. That means if one of them retires, then the other, who
may be under age fifty-five, can retire with their pension calculated
as if they were age fifty-five.

"Most
importantly, this is a victory not only for those couples but for all
employees and retirees," states Hill. "By overriding the governor's
veto, the State House is upholding the protection of pension benefits
that retirees and employees not only earned but deserve."

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