Maryland’s Pension Board Sucked Into Political Fight

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By Leslie A. Pappas

Maryland’s $51 billion state pension system has become the latest battleground in an ongoing feud between lawmakers and the state comptroller after the General Assembly passed a measure to prevent the comptroller from ever becoming the pension board’s chairman.

The measure (SB 178) would make the state treasurer chair of the board of trustees of the Maryland State Retirement and Pension Systems (SRPS), eliminating a long-standing tradition that either the comptroller or the treasurer take the helm. The proposed change came in a committee amendment to a perfunctory technical bill and was passed unanimously by both chambers on April 9, the final day of the Legislature’s 90-day legislative session.

The proposal is “deeply troubling” and reflects “a startling lack of judgment from lawmakers,” Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who has served as vice chairman of the pension board of trustees for 11 years, said in an April 16 letter to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), asking the governor to veto the bill.

The exchange is the most recent development in a public battle between Franchot and Democratic lawmakers, who clashed earlier this year over regulation of the state’s craft beer brewing industry and issues around school construction. After the Legislature made several moves to curb the comptroller’s powers, Franchot vowed that he would campaign to unseat Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D).

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), who has chaired the pension board since 2007, wasn’t consulted about the change before it passed, she told Bloomberg Law in a phone call April 20. While she suspects the bill is “a parting shot taken by the Legislature” against Franchot, the board has asked the staff to look into the matter to make sure lawmakers weren’t sending a message about the board’s effectiveness, she said.

Current law doesn’t specify who chairs the 15-member board, only that the chair be elected by majority vote, Michael Golden, spokesman for the state’s retirement agency, told Bloomberg Law in a phone call April 20.

Kopp hasn’t discussed the bill with the governor and said it likely would have little impact on the pension system if enacted, she said. Other bills passed by the Legislature, such as SB 899, which strengthens the pension system’s investment division, would have a greater impact on the system’s long-term stability, she said.

The pension system covers 382,300 retired and active public employees, including teachers, police and corrections officers, and government employees.

The governor’s office didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. Representatives for Miller and Busch didn’t respond to phone calls and texts seeking comment.

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