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The Massachusetts House gave overwhelming approval Wednesday to Gov. Charlie Baker's plan to offer early retirement packages to thousands of state employees.
The governor and lawmakers expect about 4,500 executive branch workers to take advantage of the program, saving the state about $173 million in the next fiscal year that starts on July 1. The savings estimate was about $5 million less than what Baker originally projected.
Under the plan, state agencies would be allowed to "backfill" 20 percent of the salaries of the workers who opt for early retirement - meaning the agencies could hire replacements for departing workers until they reached 20 percent of the salaries of the total salaries of those who left.
Baker, a Republican, offered the proposal as part of a broader plan to close what his administration projected as a $1.8 billion budget shortfall.
Some members of the Democratic-controlled House were uneasy about offering early retirement to executive branch workers, but not to other employees such as those in the state's judicial system.
"I think we should afford all of our state employees equal protection under the law we want to put on the governor's desk," said Rep. John Rogers, a Norwood Democrat.
Rogers was among several lawmakers pushing an amendment to extend the early retirement offer to all of state government, but they agreed to withdraw the amendment after House leaders promised future public hearings on whether to broaden early retirement to include other categories of state workers.
The House then passed the bill on a 149-0 vote, with three members voting present. It still needs Senate approval.
Haverhill Democrat Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the program was kept narrow by design and warned if it was expanded the projected savings would not be achieved. He said the judiciary, for example, would not be able to withstand the departures of so many early retirees and continue operating efficiently.
The bill also directs nearly $50 million to the state's pension reserves to address concerns expressed by state Treasurer Deb Goldberg and others that an early retirement program would add to the state's unfunded pension liabilities - and in so doing raise the shackles of bond rating agencies.
Under the plan, executive branch employees who are 55 or older and have at least 20 years of accrued service could apply for early retirement before July 31.
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