RI taxpayers bear biggest pension burden for troopers, judges

Rhode Island taxpayers continue to pick up a much larger share of the cost of pensions for judges and state police officers than they do for the rest of the state work force or teachers.

All the employees contribute a similar portion of their wages to the state pension fund: 8.75% of pay for state workers, judges and troopers, and 9.5% of pay for teachers. But the additional contribution that taxpayers have to make on top of that to fully fund each pension varies widely.

New teachers have the least lucrative deal. The pension contributions they make are enough to cover 80% of the future of cost their pensions, according to state actuaries Gabriel Roeder Smith & Co. State employees’ contributions pay for nearly as much as their educator colleagues, covering at 77% of the future cost.

It’s a different story for state police and judges.

The pension contributions a newly hired trooper makes from his paycheck are enough to cover just 29% of the pension he will eventually receive, Gabriel Roeder Smith’s projections show, leaving taxpayers to shoulder more than two-thirds of the cost.

And judges’ pension contributions are enough to cover only 35% of the pensions they will get after retirement, according to the projections.

All the above figures – known as the “entry-age normal cost,” to use actuarial terminology – only apply to newly hired individuals whose pensions incorporate both the various changes enacted by the General Assembly since 2005 and the new, more conservative assumptions adopted by the state Retirement Board last spring.

The reasons state police and judges get treated so differently are partly because of differences in the durations of their careers and the size of their pension benefits, said Robert Walsh, executive director of the NEA Rhode Island teachers union, who served on the Chafee-Raimondo pension advisory group.

“Judges work for a relatively short period of time to get a higher percentage of salary,” and usually begin working at an older age, Walsh told WPRI.com. That means fewer years of contributions by the judges to help defray the eventual cost of their pensions, which can be worth up to 90% of final average salary for a judge appointed after 2009.

“For state police it’s similar but different, in that the work comes earlier in their life but they get a pension right away, at an earlier time,” Walsh said. State police hired since 2007 can retire after 25 years and start collecting a pension equal to 50% of their final salaries.

Walsh said his members will be watching closely to see whether the forthcoming Raimondo-Chafee pension bill forces state police and judges to share the burden along with other state workers and retirees. “They keep saying the changes will affect all categories, and of course we think they should be equitable changes,” he said.

• Related: RI has no pension data for many state police, judges (Sept. 22)

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