Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

EDITORIAL >>Taxpayers robbed again

Since the mid-reign of Gov. Mike Huckabee nine years ago, an Arkansas public official who has been on the job for a number of years and is in the know could draw his or her state pension and stay on the job at full salary. Word of the little loophole created by a 1999 law spread so that now more than 300 state government employees, mostly in the executive ranks, are drawing dual pay, which is familiarly called “double dipping.”

Quite a number of elected county officials, perhaps as many as 200, have been taking advantage of the perk. They “resign” (quietly, of course), stop their salaries for three months while they continue at the office and then put themselves back on the payroll at full salary plus their monthly retirement checks. Three Garland County officials are drawing their $61,385 annual salaries while collecting $30,000 to $36,000 a year in state-funded pensions.

Most of us, the taxpayers, wouldn’t have known about the emolument, which has become quite costly to the Public Employees Retirement System, except for Rep. Allen Kerr of Little Rock, who blew the whistle last week after receiving complaints from unknown individuals in the Garland County government who thought it a little unfair that the politicians were claiming the benefits without the knowledge of the taxpayers and voters.

And maybe illegally. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel says the issue is complicated but that people who really did not retire in the legal sense – they did not actually leave the job and no search for a replacement was conducted – may have acted illegally. He is studying the question and will recommend a remedy.

Here is a remedy: Change the law to make it illegal. The legislature this spring made it a trifle harder to take advantage of the double-dipping option by requiring people to go off the payroll for six months rather than just three months before qualifying for dual pay. But taxpayers would feel better knowing that the government just did not allow it.

The perk arose from a concern that public employees with long and valuable experience who retired might later decide to come back to work and give valuable service to the government in some capacity but would be deterred by the loss of their pensions. So provision was made for them to come back to work and keep their pension checks coming if they had been retired for at least three months first. But it became an entitlement, at least for those in the upper ranks who knew about it, including high-salaried department heads like the head of the prisons.

There is a far-fetched precedent for that in the general employment ranks. People can draw their full Social Security and keep working after the age of 65. They have contributed for a lifetime of work.

Back in the 1990s, when the teaching force was declining as experienced teachers retired, the state created an incentive for experienced teachers to stay on the job while they were still productive. It was called T-drop. After 30 years (now 28) of teaching, they could stop their payroll contributions to the Teacher Retirement System, and while they would not start drawing their pensions, a portion of the pensions they would have earned was put into a special interest-bearing fund that would give them an extra nest egg when they did retire. They can T-drop for up to 10 years. It did not cost the taxpayers more than it would if the teachers had simply retired.

But the public employees’ pension perk is far different from the teachers’ incentive or Social Security. An administrator or an elected county politician can draw both his full retirement and his salary at any age after 28 years of government work or after only five years of government employment at the age of 65. In several instances, a county official would secretly “retire” shortly before his re-election, forego his county salary for the last three months of the year and then be sworn in for another term at a vastly improved pay.

Unlike the teacher incentive, there is no discernible public benefit to the program unless it is happier politicians and ensconced government administrators. That has to be balanced by the happiness of taxpayers who must pay for the emoluments.