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Utah Legislature: Public safety may catch a break on retirement

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill creating a new, less costly state pension system will be amended to allow public safety employees to continue retiring at full benefits before other government workers.

SB63 had called for all employees covered under the state retirement system to work 35 years to earn a full pension, even though police officers, firefighters and other public safety employees traditionally have been able to leave earlier.

Now, the bill will be amended to give public safety employees a full pension after 25 years. Other public employees, including schoolteachers and state workers, still would have to work 35 years under the bill.

Currently, public safety employees can retire at full benefits after 20 years and other public employees, 30 years. But the state retirement system took a $6.5 billion hit in the 2008 economic crisis, and lawmakers are looking for a way to make up the lost money.

SB63 is part of a package of three bills sponsored by Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful, the chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee. All are scheduled to be debated on the Senate floor Thursday at 3 p.m.

Liljenquist said there's a policy argument to be made for a shorter retirement window for public safety employees. "Some of these professions are more of a young person's career," he said.

The head of the Utah Public Employees Association, Audry Wood, agreed. "I think we all understand, especially with firefighters, it's such a physical, high-demand job, and the burnout rate is high," Wood said.

But Wood said she still opposes the dramatic overhaul being proposed and wants the state to take more time in redesigning the pension system.

The change Liljenquist is making, she said, "just goes to show that moving so quickly reveals the flaws. Getting the extra year we're asking for, we can flesh out a lot of the issues."

The new system would cover employees hired after July 1, 2011. Current employees would lose a 1.5 percent contribution to their 401(k) retirement plans under another Liljenquist bill, SB94.

And the final bill in the package, SB43, would prevent retirees rehired by the government after July 1, 2010, from collecting both a paycheck and a pension, a practice known as double-dipping.