“I think it would be one hell of a fight,” Mac McArthur, executive director of the Alabama State Employees Association, told the Birmingham News, predicting Riley will eventually back off.
Riley press secretary David Azbell told the newspaper that Riley will bring up his suggestion to phase out the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) when the Alabama Legislature kicks off its 2004 session in February. Azbell said the price – estimated at $26 million annually when the program was approved last year – has become prohibitively expensive with the number of high-paid employees taking advantage of it.
DROP gives teachers and state employees who are at least 55 years old and have at least 25 years experience a lump-sum bonus if they agree to work an extra three to five years before retiring. There are 3,138 teachers and other public education employees and 915 state employees participating in the deferred retirement program, according to the state retirement systems.
Azbell said he hopes lawmakers will reconsider in light of the state’s financial situation. “When it had a lot of legs we weren’t staring at a $285 million shortfall in the education budget,” the Riley representative told the News. “When DROP was passed, the state was not laying off state employees en masse.”
Riley said he plans to ask the state’s 34-member Education Spending Commission for suggestions on how to phase out the program. The commission in a July report said the plan had grown from its original purpose of retaining senior employees in hard-to-fill positions to include a broad range of employees.
Paul Hubbert, head of the Alabama teachers’ union, urged lawmakers to pass the program last year, arguing it would help keep experienced teachers and employees on the job. Lawmakers apparently got the message with an overwhelming 31 to 0 Senate vote and 92 to 1 House tally, according to the newspaper.