Utah Senate gives preliminary support to inject $5.3 million into police and firefighter retirement that some say were hurt by 2010 reforms

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Murray firefighters salute the funeral procession for Utah firefighter Matthew Burchett as it travels down I-215 to the cemetery in Provo, Aug. 20, 2018. The Utah Senate on Monday advanced a plan to infuse more than $5 million into firefighter and police pension plans after a reform nine years ago that supporters say hurt retirees in those fields.

Nine years after Utah lawmakers voted to reform the state’s public pension system — moving away from guaranteed benefits toward a 401(k) model — the Utah Senate is poised to approve an infusion of $5.3 million into the retirement benefits of police officers and firefighters.

Senators gave a preliminary 25-3 vote on Monday in favor of SB129, amid concerns that the bill’s use of one-time money leaves the future stability of the program uncertain and ultimately forces municipalities to pay the long-term costs of increased retirement benefits.

“I’m a little concerned that we’re not having much of that debate today,” said Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan.

Many of the 25 senators who supported the bill did so on an “aye on two” vote, which indicates lingering reservations that could narrow the proposal’s lopsided victory when it comes up for a final Senate vote, potentially as early as Tuesday.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, voted in favor of the bill Monday. But during debate he suggested the proposal’s emphasis on retirement could leave cities in a position where they’re not able to offer competitive starting salaries to new recruits.

“I’m concerned that we’re putting all of our stock into enriching the retirement benefits,” he said.

The bill’s sponsor, Taylorsville Republican Sen. Wayne Harper, said the one-time appropriation would be funded in part through growth in state revenue from liquor sales, as well as increased employer and employee contributions to the retirement system.

He said the changes are necessary to maintain a competitive benefits package for the state’s first responders.

“If we don’t have a solid public safety first responder program, a lot of other elements of government will crumble,” he said, “because they’re the ones that keep us safe.”

Several of the chamber’s Democratic members spoke in favor of the bill, calling it appropriate and overdue.

“We should have had this a long time ago,” said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City. “This population was injured by the retirement plan that was put in place.”

The reforms previously enacted essentially make employees, rather than the government, assume investment risks.