A bill that would have the state pay 45 percent of the cost of health insurance for police and firefighters between the time they retire and become eligible for Medicare – at an estimated cost of $4.5 million annually – is gathering support in the Legislature.

Firefighters and police have lined the corridor between the Senate and House in recent weeks lobbying legislators and keeping tabs on who is undecided. Rep. Robert Duplessie, D-Westbrook, the House whip and the bill’s sponsor, said Monday he has the votes to pass the bill, which has the support of Gov. John Baldacci.

Opponents of the bill, including the Democratic co-chairman of the Labor Committee, say police and firefighters are not state workers and should not be singled out for state-subsidized health care.

“For the state, through the general fund, to subsidize health insurance for a particular group of employees is unfair,” said Rep. William Smith, D-Van Buren. “I would look to try and carve out something that helps everybody rather than just one group.”

Van Buren was the sole Democrat on the Labor Committee to speak out against the bill during a brief hearing last week.

Other legislators say they support the bill’s intent and the work police and firefighters do, but some question where the money is going to come from. The way the bill is written, the first $4.5 million doesn’t have to be paid until 2007, leaving the funding decision to the next Legislature.

“It offers new benefits for the next biennium but does not suggest any way to pay for it,” said Sen. Richard Nass, R-York, who is on the Appropriations Committee.

The Legislature’s fiscal office already is predicting the state will be $500 million short in the next two-year budget cycle, he said, so that means the health care benefit will end up competing with higher education, roads and bridges, and research and development for limited funds.

“It is likely to not be successful when we come back in January,” Nass said. “This is a promise that may not be kept.”

The idea for paying health insurance costs for municipal firefighters and police officers until they hit 65 came out of a study authorized by the Legislature in 2003. It looked at discrepancies in benefits between State Police and local police and firefighters, and also compared Maine to New Hampshire.

It found a lack of a retiree health plan made it hard to recruit and retain officers, and also contributed to officers and firefighters working beyond retirement age because they couldn’t afford to pay for health care. Most communities allow police and firefighters to retire with a pension after 25 years of service.

“It’s not good to be having firefighters in their late 50s or even into their 60s,” said Rep. Duplessie, a retired Portland firefighter. “Do you want a 60-year-old coming up that ladder?” he asked.

Duplessie, who said he wouldn’t benefit from the bill because retirement health benefits are offered to members of the Legislature, discounted the argument that local police and firefighters are not state workers and therefore should not be taken care of by the state.

“Teachers are not state employees either. They’re all municipal employees,” he said, yet the Legislature just increased their retirement benefit from 40 to 45 percent of the premium.

“It’s the responsibility of government to keep its citizenry safe,” said Bobby Reynolds, a Portland firefighter and head of his local union, who helped organize the ongoing lobbying efforts in the Statehouse halls.

“The public safety sector is graying,” he said, because people are “staying on the job beyond what everybody agreed,” was a good time to retire.

Under the proposed bill, municipal police and firefighters who wanted to be part of the health retirement plan would start putting in 1.5 percent of their salary toward a shared pool starting in January of 2007. Benefits for those who already retired would start in July of 2007, or the start of the next budget cycle.

“That’s $600,000 in good faith money,” that officers and firefighters would start contributing even before the benefit starts, Reynolds said. He estimated 2,400 police and firefighters and 2,000 retirees would be eligible for the benefit, although not all are expected to take it. The bill would not affect volunteer firefighters.

While Reynolds said the 1.5 percent would help pay benefits, Sen. Nass said the employee contribution might cover administrative costs.

Nass said he’s planning to put in an amendment on the bill that would look for another way of funding it aside from the general fund.

Sen. Peter Mills, R-Somerset, who sat on the study committee and is now running for governor, said he too is planning an amendment.

Mills would like the state to contribute “only if the cities and towns contribute and/or demonstrate improved efficiencies through consolidation or regionalization of these services,” he said.

“What is the state getting back for this?” he asked, suggesting regional fire districts might be a fair trade.

Rep. Duplessie said he had heard amendments were going to be offered on the floor, and said simply, “they’re poison pills.”

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