Utah senators approve one-year, $5M-plus boost to police and firefighter retirement

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City police Explorers post the colors during a ceremony for the airport police, established in 1984, to retire their patch and badge as they are subsumed into the Salt Lake City Police Department on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The Legislature is debating a plan to infuse millions into the police and firefighters pension systems.

After a lengthy debate on how Utah’s police and firefighters are underpaid and who’s to blame, the Utah Senate voted 27-2 to infuse $5.3 million into the retirement systems for first responders.

The vote on SB129 came after the bill was substituted to provide a single year of assistance to cities — rather than an ongoing annual transfer of funding. That came after Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, objected to the use of state money to provide compensation to municipal employees.

“After a one-year bridge," Fillmore said, “the employer should pay the full cost of paying their public safety employees.”

Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he had issues with the original bill obligating the state to cover retirement costs over time. But the substitution, he said, still fails to address the fundamental problem that cities are either not in a position or not willing to step up and provide for their first responders.

“Truth is,” Anderegg said, “neither of these paths are a long-term solution for their plight.”

But Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, said the issue is not one of whether the state or cities are at fault. She said everyone is at risk when low pay and benefits leads to high turnover among Utah’s public employees.

“I do not think this is problem that we have to say is them or us,” Riebe said.

Bill sponsor Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, said he preferred the original bill to the substitute, but credited the “healthy debate" on an important policy issue and urged his colleagues to support SB129.

“This is a shared responsibility,” Harper said.

The bill comes after 2010 pension reforms by the Legislature that converted the guaranteed retirement benefits public employees once enjoyed to a 401(k) style program in which investment risk rests on the employee rather than the government. Critics of the reforms say they harmed public workers and made government jobs in the state less desirable to those seeking a career. SB129 will now move to the House for consideration.