State lawmakers have backed big pay raises for state troopers, Capitol police and other law enforcement in recent years in hopes of attracting recruits and retaining officers.
That hasn’t solved the staffing problem, so lawmakers are looking at creating a new pension system that would guarantee decent lifetime retirement benefits if officers stick around on the job.
The House Retirement Committee this week began reviewing House Bill 824 by Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the panel’s chairman. The measure would give a 25-year veteran officer of the state patrol, GBI, or other state law enforcement a pension worth 80% of their final pay when they retire. Officers would vest in the plan after serving 10 years and the benefit would increase each year of service.
Carson filed the bill at the end of the 2023 session and the committee this week voted to request a financial study of the proposal, a necessary step before lawmakers can take up the measure during the 2024 session.
The lawmaker said a similar plan in Florida helped law enforcement agencies hold onto employees.
However, Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, a member of the committee and a pension system watchdog for years, said, “This is going to be tremendously expensive.”
To slow turnover, lawmakers approved a $2,000 raise for teachers, university and most state employees this year, but a $6,000 increase for many in law enforcement.
Still, Col. Chris Wright, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, told the committee that troopers have told him that retirement benefits are a big issue.
Before the late 2000s, all full-time state employees could get a full Employees’ Retirement System pension. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and lawmakers did away with the full pension for new hires.
While older troopers may still have pensions if they were hired before then, Wright said the current retirement system for newer hires — with 401(k) funds — doesn’t anchor officers to the job. They can work for the state for five years and leave for another job, taking what they accumulated in the fund with them.
A pension guarantees a defined monthly payment and in the state system, that amount gets bigger the longer you continue working for the state. New Georgia teachers and University System employees can still get such traditional pensions.
Wright said DPS isn’t getting enough applicants to fill trooper schools. He said it costs the state $146,000 to train a trooper. And once they join the force, they often don’t stay long.
“What we are seeing is people are just getting out of the profession,” Wright said. “It’s simply not worth the risk. The salary and compensation is just not competitive.
“It is dangerous work, and there is so much opportunity to do something with a lot less danger.”
Wright told the committee that more than 50% of the agency’s staffers have less than 10 years of experience with the state.
Rep. Patty Bentley, D-Butler, a member of the retirement committee, said she supports the bill.
“I believe we can find the money,” she said, noting the state has run large surpluses the past few years.
Others weren’t so sure.
“I am concerned about the cost and how it will impact the (ERS) system,” said Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, another member of the panel.
Chuck Freedman, who lobbies for the Georgia State Retirees Association, said the state should honor its commitment to the 54,000 state retirees with ERS pensions - who have gone most years without a cost-of-living increase - before funding a new retirement plan.
Martin said it would be cheaper for the state to put more money into law enforcement pay raises than starting a pension program.
“It just seems to me, why not just pay the people a salary that will keep them there?” he said. “It (a pension plan) is going to be a huge number the state is going to be putting in.”