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Was it constitutional for Proposition 124 to replace PSPRS' permanent benefit increases with a capped 2% COLA?

In this blog I and multiple commenters have broached the subject of the suspect constitutionality of PSPRS' replacement of the old perma...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

How will EORP reform affect PSPRS members? You be the judge.

This piece, Arizona pensions for elected officials may be cut by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services, appeared in the The Arizona Daily Star.  It details a proposal in the Arizona state legislature to change the current Elected Officials Retirement Plan (EORP) from a defined benefit pension (like PSPRS) into a defined contribution plan (e.g. a 401k, 403b, or 475b).

The article brings up several important points.  The first is by Arizona House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, who makes the case that if pension reform is needed it is only fair that the legislature start with the plan that affects those making the reforms.  Depending on how successful Mr. Tobin is at reforming EORP, this can either be good or bad for PSPRS members.  If the legislature balks at Mr. Tobin's proposal, those in other state pensions can rightfully point to the failure of the legislature to deal with their own underfunded pension.  However, if his plan passes, this will eliminate the hypocrisy defense that PSPRS members could use against a legislature that tried to make changes only to PSPRS.

Another point in the article goes to a contention that has been made in this blog many times.  That is the creation of a tiered pension system where one or more group(s) gets better benefits than another.  A lobbyist for the Arizona Judges Association, Pete Dunn, states that Mr. Tobin's proposal would create a dual pension system with one excellent pension and one awful one.  As with PSPRS, it would be a tiered system that would determine retirement benefits solely based on a person's date of hire.

It is not mentioned in the article but another point about Arizona judges needs to be made.  While their retirement system is covered under EORP and they participate in elections, Arizona judges are not politicians.  Judges in the Arizona Appellate and Supreme Court are initially appointed to their positions by the governor and are subject to a voter retention process after each term.  The retention process is non-competitive and pertains only to whether the judge will retain the seat for another term.  Depending on population size, Superior Court judges may be appointed and subject to retention elections or run in competitive, non-partisan elections.  For the most part, their positions hinge on their fitness and competence as judges, rather than on their political views.

Furthermore, a judge is a professional position.  While this in no way is meant to disparage members of the Arizona legislature or the state executive branch, who often come from other successful career backgrounds, there is still a very limited criteria to run for political office, and anyone who meets these criteria can obtain signatures and have themselves placed on a ballot, run, and be elected to the legislature or even governor.  This is not the case for judges.  No one who does not have an already successful legal career can become a judge. A judgeship is earned through years of work and study and is generally not subject to the whim of voters.

Finally, judges have the training and experience that allows them to easily move into the private sector or other public sector legal jobs.  Earning a position as a judge is an honor and a sacrifice that carries with it huge responsibilities, but an attorney distinguished and skilled enough to become a judge will always have other opportunities to earn a good (and maybe better) living in other areas of law.

Professionalism, competence, honor, sacrifice, training, experience, non-political: what do all these word evoke in those of us in PSPRS?  They are words many of us would use to describe our own professions in law enforcement and firefighting/EMS.  I was told when I came on the job that we had an added protection to our pension since Arizona's judges were under the same plan as us.  This was misinformation, but the point was being made that judges would be less likely to rule in a way that lessened PSPRS' benefits since they would be harming themselves financially.

This point is crass and cynical.  Who knows how a judge whose retirement was in defined contribution plan would rule in a case involving a defined benefit public pension?  I suspect the judge would remain impartial and follow the law as in every other case.  The real point is that judges should be linked to law enforcement and firefighting/EMS for the more noble reasons mentioned before, not by some cheap financial and/or political calculation.  Do judges deserve a defined benefit pension for the public service they do, and are the costs of a defined benefit pension outweighed by the benefits the public receives in a better court system?  Those are the only questions that matters.  How it ends up being answered will determine a lot about the future of PSPRS. 

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