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End pension abuses or face voters' wrath

Taxpayers were outraged after reading St. Petersburg Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan's report in February that more than 8,000 state employees are double dipping — getting both a public pension and a salary. Imagine how taxpayers feel now that Morgan has discovered that 1,200 former state employees are collecting on two or more pensions, and that 131 current employees are cashing in on multiple pensions and a salary.

It should be a major scandal, except that legislators created a loophole that allows the practice. So they will have to be the ones to fix it. Odds of that happening this year don't look good because (you guessed it) some lawmakers are doing it too.

"It's going to be a bit of an uphill battle to get anything done, I'm afraid," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who sponsored a bill that would end the practice by elected officials. "Apparently there are more double-dippers in the Legislature than I thought."

Florida residents need to remember this when legislators ask everyone to tighten their belts. It's easy to call for sacrifice when you're drawing two checks, or have the opportunity to do so in the future.

The cost to taxpayers is significant — $300-million last year. For participants, it can be very lucrative. Employees who take advantage of the Deferred Retirement Option Program (or DROP) can continue working (usually for five years) while the state sets aside their pension payments as though they were actually retired, plus a generous 6.5 percent interest rate.

Some state officials are then allowed to "retire" for a month while keeping their current jobs, after which they collect their monthly retirement benefit, their full salary and a lump sum amount that accumulated during the DROP period. In that way, scandal-plagued Pinellas County Tax Collector Jim Smith is able to collect a $148,335 salary and a $6,681 monthly retirement check, not to mention his $423,157 in deferred benefits.

The program was supposed to encourage older employees to retire to make room for younger, lower-paid replacements. In 2001, the Legislature added the loophole that permits double (or even triple) dipping as a favor to a few fellow lawmakers who were eligible for state pensions.

Other states have laws to avoid such abuses. New York doesn't allow state retirees who return to public jobs to collect their pensions while they're working except in special circumstances, and then their maximum salary is capped at $30,000 and they're not allowed to qualify for a second state pension. Other states limit the amount of money retired public employees can earn if they return to their jobs, too.

Florida should follow those examples and draw the line on state pension abuse. Any lawmaker who won't support such reform should be sent off into real retirement, by being voted out of office.

End pension abuses or face voters' wrath 03/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2008 5:18pm]
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