View from the Interim
September 8, 2017
We are now in the interim—that period between two sessions of the legislature—a good time to do an assessment of the impending threats and the status of our defenses. If history is to serve as a teacher we can surely anticipate that some legislator or some group working with a legislator will once again mount another attack on the LEOFF 1 pension plan. Our task is to see that any attack is unsuccessful.
At this time; we know of no planned attack on the LEOFF 1 system. That is not unusual this far in advance of the start of the new legislative session. We do not even have any rumors of an attack—another common status.
But in previous attacks, e.g. the LEOFF I/LEOFFII merger proposal and two sessions later the TRS I/LEOFF I merger proposal there was no prior notice. In fact both of those original proposals were made with no prior proposals, no review by the SCPP and no notice to the stakeholders. Both were presented at the end of the legislative session and were crafted in secrecy and an attempt to avoid any input from the stakeholders. In the 2017 session there was an attempt to implement a LEOFF I/LEOFF II merger via a budget bill declaring it to be Necessary to Implement the Budget (NTIB) and thereby avoid any hearing, testimony or consideration outside of secret budget negotiations.
All of these efforts and many others strung over the last 20 years have failed and the LEOFF 1 system remains in place and healthy. They failed for a number of reasons but the principal factor has been the organization of the LEOFF 1 community and its active lobbying efforts to block any of these attacks.
Of course, the fact that all of their proposals have been illegal and unlikely to survive a court challenge have made our efforts to educate the legislators on their folly easier.
In recent history we had HB 2097 in 2011—one of the late in session secret proposal that died in committee. The proposal generated a study followed by HB 2350 in 2012 that failed as well. In 2013 and 2015 secret draft proposals for a TRS s/LEOFF 1 merger were written and reviewed but not brought forward. The Senate went so far as to hire a firm of tax attorneys to figure out how to make such a raid legal. The effort failed and the activities were kept secret.
Then in 2016 was the surprise, SB 6668; again a late in session secret proposal that eventually died but resulted in yet another study. In the 2017 session efforts to bring forward some sort of merger bill did not get much traction in either house even though they had their study for cover. No merger bill was proposed throughout the session. Then at the very end of budget negotiations an attempt was made to implement a LEOFF I/LEOFF II merger – that failed rather quickly with only a couple of days of consideration.
But these attacks go back much further. In 2001 the legislature actually proposed SB 5191/HB 1072. That bill would have taken $40 million out of the trust fund for use by the employers to defray medical costs. That bill failed and it was quickly followed by SB 6166 to terminate LEOFF 1 and take the money out of the LEOFF 1 trust for other state purposes. It took a lawsuit to stop that one. Once the suit was filed the legislature backed off.
The point is to recognize that this has been going on aggressively since 2001 – that is sixteen years and we can only anticipate some senator or representative or organization will try again.
What do we do about it?
It is understandable why most LEOFF 1 members have a siege mentality. The legislature and other interested parties want our money and do not have the decency to wait for us to die first.
These legislators promise, when they put their hands in our pockets: don’t worry the state has to pay the pension even if it has already spent all the money. They may mean it, but they cannot guarantee it.
Here is what has worked to block these attacks.
First and foremost is organization. That means knowing and being able to contact every LEOFF 1 member almost immediately. That means willingness on behalf of those members to write emails and letters and to make phone calls to the legislators. As amazing as it sounds, the legislators do pay attention to such contacts. You may not get much of an opportunity discuss your concerns but they do keep a tally and are reluctant to act in opposition to strong sentiment.
Next is direct lobbying of your legislators. Right now they are at home and most will meet with you for a cup of coffee and hear you out. Whether or not you convince them of you position you will at least have made a mark that will help. Organizing a coffee meeting with several of your LEOFF 1 friends and you local representative or senator is also effective. They are running for election and will generally agree to attend such a meeting. You will have support with other LEOFF 1 members in attendance.
Third is belonging to an organization that represents your interests. A good example is the Retired Fire Fighters of Washington (RFFOW). That group has spearheaded the lobbying efforts to protect the pension and, in fact, to secure some twenty plus improvements that include survivor coverage, extending the retirement maximum and many others. The Retired Seattle Police Officers’ Association represents its members. Throughout the state there are numerous other retired organization, some with formal organization and some not much more than a periodic breakfast meeting of a few friends, but everyone needs to be involved with others to stay abreast of developments.
Not all groups provide the necessary efforts. The group needs to actively lobby the legislature and to make selective campaign donations.
LEOFF1.Net is not a membership organization but it does track any news that impacts or should be of interest to members. (www.leoff1.net) LEOFF1.Net does not collect dues or lobby. Full disclosure: LEOFF1.Net is run by Jerry Taylor who is the current president of the RSPOA.
Belonging to a LEOFF organization is the first line of defense against pension raids. Please make certain we know where you are and how to contact you. It may well be imperative that we have that ability the next time they come after us.
Pay your fair share.
It costs money to maintain an organization and to send people to Olympia. It costs money to make donations to campaigns. It costs money to hire lobbyists. If you are one of those folks who have been relying on someone else to do the lobbying work the least you can do is send that organization a check.
We need a state wide group that can represent all LEOFF 1 members. More on that subject later.
What about the Coalition?
The Coalition claims to represent all LEOFF 1 members but they really do not. LEOFF 1 members have no input into their policies and no opportunity to select their leadership.
Back in 2000 the principal groups formed the LEOFF 1 Coalition in an attempt to create an umbrella group that would speak for all of us. Sadly that effort that originally comprised seven active groups failed. Shortly after the start internal politics caused groups to drop out or resign from the Coalition. It has now degenerated into an organization comprised of only seven members. Two are ostensibly representatives of the WSRDSPOA and the rest are at-large members. None are elected and the Coalition reserves the right to deny board membership even to those WSRDSPOA should they choose.
They continue to claim they represent all LEOFF 1 members but in reality they do not. The Coalition raised a significant amount of money when it first started and over the years they have spent a significant amount of the funds raised. They will not report either how much money they have or how they spend their money, but they continue to solicit donations from individuals who will never have any input into of knowledge of how that money is spent. That is key reason I urge LEOFF 1 members NOT to donate to the Coalition.
That said, at least some of the funds raised have gone to good purposes. We think they paid some of the costs of the original lawsuit filed to stop SB 6166. In concert with other organizations they have assisted in funding lawsuits in Snohomish County and Moses Lake dealing with medical benefits. At the same time they have spent money on items that seem frivolous and outside of their mission.
In their latest newsletter they took several nasty swipes at Dick Warbrouck and the RFFOW. Additionally the newsletter was riddled with inaccurate statements and claims. It is unfortunate to see these types of things occur. Over the last session and the prior interim there have been several meeting between Coalition Board members, the RFFOW, the RSPOA and the WSRPOA. We have met in groups, we have met with attorneys, we have met for breakfast. The goal was to try and get all LEOFF 1 groups to speak with a single voice. Unfortunately that has not happened.
During the 2016 interim the Coalition started to suggest in SCPP hearings and in Roundtable discussions the fact that they want to negotiate some sort of settlement with the legislature. This raised an alarm with many folks close to the issue for a number of reasons, principally because no one has the authority to negotiate on behalf of all LEOFF 1 members and the legislature really has no authority to obligate other legislatures going forward. Even a constitutional amendment would be subject to change. Additionally taking a position that for a given dollar amount we would forfeit a portion of our pension trust funds sends a message that opens the door to perdition.
We asked to Coalition to explain what they mean by negotiation and to give the other LEOFF 1 groups their opening position on any negotiations and some parameters that would define the process should it go forward. They have been unable or unwilling to provide any proposal even within our group of just LEOFF 1 members.
We have found that some of our members who have served in the legislature in past sessions were able to open doors and get us into see the leadership in the House and Senate. As the session neared its end we sought to hire such a person for the future needs. This lobbyist would not replace our current lobbying efforts but rather enhance it.
Long story, but we approached the Coalition and asked that they join us in this effort and agree to pay a portion of the monthly fee – actually only about 1/5 of the cost as there were five groups that agreed to help out. The Coalition agreed and agreed to interview the candidate. Then they backed out without contacting the candidate or even communicating their change of intentions.
These are the types of things that keep us separated and often off topic when dealing with the legislature. Since the Coalition has no responsibility to anyone except their own seven members they seem to have grown a bit insular. Many believe they are off track. They think they are on track.
Is there a resolution?
Our concerns rest in the fact that there still remain a significant number of LEOFF 1 members who do not belong to any organization and are not aware of the ongoing threat to our pension system. As we all grow older many of the members die or become somehow incapacitated. Combine that with the fact that there are not any statewide organizations with significant membership. The RFFOW is best positioned to provide a voice to all retired firefighters. The RSPOA is a retired Seattle organization. There is no effective state wide resource for retired police officers. Several cities and counties do have local retired police organizations and most of those have joined an informal organization called the Washington State Retired Police Officers Association—an organization of organizations. There is the Washington State Retired Deputy Sherriff and Police Officers Association which grew out of a King County group and is state wide. They do engage issues and are closely associated with the Coalition, but are more social than political in nature.
All of these organizations are faced with a common problem. Their members and leadership are getting older. We are finding fewer willing to be involved and willing to put in the time needed. For example, Dick Warbrouck of the Retired Fire Fighters spends two to three days a week in Olympia during session. That is one of the reasons they have been so effective. At one time I was told by then Representative Steve Conway that if I wanted to speak to LEOFF 1 issues I would need to work with Dick Warbrouck.
Groups outside of the Coalition have developed a consensus that we need a single organization that is state wide and has a real membership of LEOFF 1 members with real elections and dues. We just have not found someone who has the energy and interest to form up such a group nor have we identified individuals who would be willing to serve on the Board of such an organization. We are looking, so if you are interested, let us know.
Such a new group would need aggressive leadership intent on recruiting a significant number of retired LEOFF 1 members and beneficiaries as members. A big challenge would be prevent the type of power plays that destroyed the Coalition.
Who will be the new leaders as we go forward with a dwindling membership and significant challenges? In the coming years we need not only to keep the legislature from raiding our pension system but, almost more importantly, to protect our disability boards. Many jurisdictions are already having problems finding members to serve on the boards and some jurisdictions find they have only one to five LEOFF 1 retirees. Keeping a functioning disability board is becoming a challenge in some areas. We will need a state wide organization to deal with that issue and protect the disability boards.
Likewise we are seeing local jurisdictions not properly following the pension laws. This is impacting both prior act and LEOFF 1. Pensions and medical benefits are impacted as well. Our current LEOFF 1 organizations have interacted with the jurisdictions in the past to resolve issues. In some cases we have supported law suits to that end. These problems will get more troublesome as our numbers drop and local politicians unfamiliar with LEOFF 1 take office.
Forming a new state wide association will be a challenge. The first step it to find someone who can lead that process. I believe current organizations could provide some seed money and help in developing basic bylaws and policy.
So, that is the course that many of us see a necessary in the long term.