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By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE — The dates for state employees to begin to apply for early retirement in competing House and Senate versions of the incentive program have passed, with no clear indication that the bills could be reconciled soon for the governor to sign.

A six-member conference committee of the House and Senate appointed earlier this week to negotiate a final bill has not yet met, and the House’s lead negotiator, Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey, left on vacation following the conclusion of the House budget deliberations Wednesday evening.

While members of the conference committee are still working to schedule a date for their initial meeting, it appears unlikely that formal talks will begin until late next week or early the week after.

House and Senate leaders tried to compromise on the early retirement package without going to conference, but the Senate is insisting on the inclusion of a cap at 4,500 employees, while House leaders are looking to build in a greater cushion to ensure the Baker administration can meet its target for more than $170 million in budget savings in fiscal 2016, according to House and Senate officials.

Though the administration has signaled to legislative leaders that it could live with the Senate’s cap, some senior officials have said it would be preferable to have more flexibility.

The Senate’s bill called for the application window for early retirement to begin this past Monday and run through May 29 in order to have participating employees retire on June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The House, which passed its bill first, started the program earlier, on April 15, but included a longer application window through July 15 to accommodate July 31 retirement dates.

The longer it takes for the bill to reach Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk, lawmakers run the risk of diminishing the bill’s potential for budget savings if employees retire later into the fiscal year.

Though the outcome remains uncertain, Baker officials are already taking steps to prepare for the administration of early retirement by notifying agency heads on Wednesday that they would likely have the opportunity to offer buyouts of up to $10,000 as an incentive for eligible employees who have already accrued their maximum pension benefit and would not stand to gain from adding five years to either their age or length of service.

The Senate bill encourages the use of buyouts, but senior administration officials say they do not need legislative authorization to use buyouts as an incentive to retire.

In addition to Dempsey, the other conferees include Sen. Karen Spilka, Sen. James Timilty, Sen. Vinny deMacedo, Rep. James Murphy and Rep. Brad Hill.