Senate panel seeks limits on Baker's early retirement plan for state workers

A Senate panel on Friday proposed excluding from Gov. Charlie Baker's early retirement plan those state employees deemed "critical" to an agency's operation, and capping the number of workers who are allowed to retire.

A new bill unveiled by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Friday differs in several ways from Baker's original plan that was approved by the House last month.

The committee's version — expected to go before the full Senate next week — reflects concerns that the early retirement incentives could prompt so many experienced executive branch workers to leave state government that some agencies would no longer be able to function effectively. Senate President Stan Rosenberg said earlier this week that a more "targeted" approach was being sought.

The Senate proposal would require the Baker administration to designate in writing by April 27 positions within each department that are considered critical to the agency's ability to carry out its mission. Those positions would not be eligible for early retirement.

The bill caps at 4,500 the number of workers who can take early retirement. While that is the same number that Baker has estimated would take advantage of the plan, it was not specified in his original proposal.

The Senate panel projects net savings to the state of $172 million in the fiscal year starting July 1.

Sen. Karen Spilka, chairwoman of the committee, said the bill would achieve roughly the same savings as sought by the governor without undermining government operations.

"The state's fiscal situation is tight, but we must allow agencies to continue to deliver high quality services and fulfill their core missions," said Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, in a statement.

The administration would be allowed to refill a portion of the jobs that are vacated by early retirement, but only up to 20 percent of the total salaries of the employees who leave.

The Senate bill, however, includes more stringent reporting requirements by the administration, including the number of employees who take early retirement, the total salary savings and the cost of refilling some of the positions.

The bill would also authorize one-time payments to workers to encourage them to retire or resign from government.

"The administration is pleased at the progress that has been made on an early retirement package," said Billy Pitman, a spokesman for Baker, after the panel released its proposal. He said officials would await the final version of the bill, which is almost certain to be decided by a group of House and Senate negotiators.

Baker proposed the early retirement incentives as part of a broader strategy to close a projected $1.8 billion structural deficit in the fiscal 2016 budget. The administration has warned that layoffs would be needed if the plan is not approved or falls short of its goals.

Executive branch employees who are 55 or older with at least 20 years of accrued service would be eligible for the plan.