The Thin Blue Line’s thinner wallets

Cities and towns were just handed some fiscal relief by the state Supreme Judicial Court but don’t expect a lot of high-fiving among local officials to follow.

If past is prologue, the SJC’s ruling that communities do not have to backfill the state’s diminished contribution to the Police Career Incentive Pay Program – otherwise known as the Quinn Bill – will further anger local police unions and could trigger some everyday work problems, including a depletion of rank and file as some older officers take retirement rather than pay cuts. Many of the rank and file already saw their paychecks slashed when Gov. Deval Patrick opened up traffic details to civilian flaggers.

The Quinn Bill, funded and administered through the state education department, was named after former attorney general Robert Quinn and passed nearly 40 years ago. By law, communities that adopted the Quinn Bill paid officers an extra 10 percent if they had an associate’s degree, 20 percent for a bachelor’s degree, and 25 percent for a master’s or a law degree. The idea behind the incentive program was that policing would be improved by a more educated patrol force. Under the original law, the state and local communities split the cost 50-50, but over the last five years the state has decreased its contribution.

In a suit brought by Boston police unions after the city refused to make up for the drop in state funds, the SJC ruled cities and towns, unless it is explicitly written into the union contracts, are not required to make good on the state’s half of the commitment. The difference is significant. Since 2009, the state has cut Quinn Bill funds by more than 90 percent. In Boston, the city would have been responsible for $10 million. In Worcester, the state has only been paying $200,000 of its share of $2.8 million, but Worcester officials have been making up the difference.

Other towns facing suits or fearful of suits have been funding the state’s portion but could get out from under that obligation with this ruling.

The Quinn Bill has been a source of controversy for decades. There was a period of time that “diploma mills” with less than challenging curricula were regularly tapped by police to qualify for pay increases, but controls were put on the Quinn Bill program several years back.

The Herald this morning already weighed in, saying the Quinn Bill is long past its useful life. In an editorial, the paper says if local police want a professional force, they should make a college degree a requirement of the job and adjust the salary accordingly.

Don’t expect police unions, among the most vocal labor organizations with unmatched solidarity, to take this quietly. One beneficiary could be Mitt Romney, who, as governor, fully funded the program even as he was slashing local aid and social service programs, notwithstanding his stump speeches these days against “big labor.”

Those that toe the thin blue line remember their friends, and as labor unions go, theirs are not as reliably Democrat-leaning as other unions. Just ask Mike Dukakis.

                                                                                                                                                           –JACK SULLIVAN


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