CITIES AND TOWNS are unfairly on the hook for roughly $40 million in college degree incentive pay to police officers. This is a fiscal emergency, and state legislators can’t just leave their municipal counterparts hanging there. Lawmakers should have the courage to take the political hit from police unions and free the municipalities of the extra obligation.
The questionable requirements stem from the 39-year-old Quinn Bill, a legendary boondoggle that has been repealed but became marbled into police-union contracts around the state. Quinn Bill provisions cover almost 10,000 officers who receive bonuses for earning criminal justice degrees. Traditionally, municipalities and the state have split the costs in the 254 communities that adopted the program. But lawmakers provided only $10 million of the $58 million needed to cover the state’s share for 2010. And labor contracts, for the most part, are mum or unclear on what happens when the state reduces or eliminates its contribution. So town officials are squaring off with police unions over the difference. A recent suit by Mashpee police officers seeking to prohibit the town from reducing Quinn Bill payments offers a glimpse of the future battlefield.
The Quinn Bill has always been a cockamamie strategy for creating an educated police force. The Legislature ended the incentive program for new hires. But now cities and towns are left with the worst of all possible worlds: big payouts ranging from 10 to 25 percent bonuses for officers who earned criminal justice degrees in diploma mills and no education incentive for new officers. This could be solved by changing state law to require that all new officers arrive with the minimum of a two-year college degree instead of the current high school diploma or equivalent.
Some communities may be locked in by labor contracts to cover the state’s share of the Quinn Bill. But most are in gray areas, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. The Legislature needs to step up - even if it draws the ire of police unions - and pass a law establishing that cities and towns will be responsible only for their 50 percent. Otherwise, communities could be forced to lay off police officers just to cover an additional share of a program that isn’t worth it at even half the price.