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Price tag 'realities' block changes in benefits for federal workers

The Baltimore Sun

Price tag blocks changes in federal benefits

Federal workers have generally viewed Democrats as more attentive to their needs than Republicans.

But since Democrats took over Congress in November, groups that represent workers, executives and retirees are split when it comes to the age-old question: What have you done for me lately?

Legislative directors for groups that represent retirees and senior executives have identified two roadblocks.

For the senior executives, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by California Democrat Henry A. Waxman, has shifted staff resources from drafting legislation to investigating wrongdoing in the executive branch, said Bill Bransford, general counsel of the Senior Executives Association.

Retirees want to lower their tax burden and receive more back from Social Security, but their proposals cost billions of dollars.

"As in the past, it doesn't matter who's in control, the problem is the price tag on" our agenda, said Judy Park of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. "Democrats came in with the same deficit and the same war. The realities that have stopped us in the past very much remain."

Other groups, however, are more optimistic. The National Treasury Employees Union has several smaller, low-cost and agency-specific items that are moving early in the 110th Congress. Most importantly, however, union President Colleen Kelley said she was pleased with initial action on a 3.5 percent pay raise for workers next year.

In general, she said that she has been pleased to see Congress' focus on good management, especially hearings on employee morale, training and recruitment at the Department of Homeland Security.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," she said. "Nothing is done yet, but so much is moving so early."

Here's an update on several pieces of legislation of interest to the federal sector:

3.5 percent raise. The House Appropriations Committee has signed off on it. It is a half-percentage point more than President Bush's proposal and equivalent to a House-approved raise for the military.

Pay-for-performance. The Senate Appropriations Committee cut funding to implement human resources changes at the Department of Homeland Security from the president's $15 million request to $5 million. The sister committee in the House cut it to zero.

Law-enforcement status. That same House bill would grant law-enforcement officer status - and, thus, early retirement and salary increases - to customs and border protection officers.

Outsourcing. Bills that would stop private companies from collecting Americans' overdue taxes sit in the House and Senate with 140 and 20 co-sponsors respectively.

Putting more money in retirees' pockets. A bill that would repeal reductions in many retirees' Social Security and pension benefits has 318 co-sponsors in the House and 32 in the Senate. This effort, however, is stalled. The retiree association is waiting on cost estimates on scaled-back alternatives.

Lowering retirees' tax bills. A bill that would allow retirees to pay their health care premiums with pretax dollars has 208 co-sponsors in the House and 40 in the Senate. Park is looking for a way to work this change into a larger tax bill, rather than have it move as a stand-alone proposal. "The cost on this is not as outrageous," she said.

Raising salary caps on senior scientific and professional posts. The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee has approved this bill, which would make senior scientists' salaries equivalent to those of other members of the senior executive service.

The writer welcomes your comments and suggestions. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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