Florida lawmakers are having a hard time reining in double dipping, perhaps because so many of them hope to do it. Fourteen months after the St. Petersburg Times began spotlighting how high-ranking officials game the state retirement system to collect both a pension and a paycheck, the Legislature is still struggling to correct the worst abuses.
A Senate plan to totally ban double dipping has raised concerns about its impact on lower-paid public employees. The best solution, politically and practically, may be a House proposal to prevent the most egregious abuses but still allow some retirees to be rehired by government.
The most flagrant abuses of the Florida Retirement System have come from those hired by voters. Dozens of elected state and local officials — including judges, school board members and sheriffs — have "retired" for 30 days and then returned to their former jobs, collecting both a pension and a paycheck but never making their decision public. Dozens have done so within weeks of winning re-election unopposed, including a Pinellas-Pasco circuit court judge. Also taking advantage of the loophole are hundreds of high-paid government staff, including university faculty and community college presidents. What's more, many double dippers who return to the same job also gamed the system to collect a lump-sum retirement payout that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But double dipping has another face: lower-paid government employees, such as prison guards, who wish to keep working or who retire only to find other job options are less attractive. An outright ban would mean they couldn't accept their pension payments and a paycheck. A retired principal, for example, wishing to spend a few years teaching after retirement would have little financial incentive to do so; a retired police officer bidding for a legislative seat, or a retired teacher running for the school board, would be required to forfeit their pension payments if elected. Discouraging talented retirees from future public service isn't in the public interest.
Senate sponsors are expected today to propose caveats to a total ban, such as limiting a rehired retiree's hours or salary. But there's no certainty that such exceptions won't have unintended consequences or that the revisions could pass both chambers.
The House plan, ready for a floor vote, offers a different approach. It says retirees could not work in a public job for a full year after retiring. If they were hired in a government job within two years, they would have to forfeit their pension payments until they reached the two-year anniversary of their retirement. Also, they would not accrue additional pension benefits in their new job. The delay would address several problems. Few retirees could expect to have their jobs open when they were eligible to work in a year. That could ultimately lower government costs when a younger employee fills the retiree's job. Plus the yearlong ban on re-employment — instead of 30 days — would trigger a new election for elected positions. And because of the one-year window, the retired official couldn't run.
Some states have banned double dipping. But doing that in Florida appears impossible in the current Legislature. The next best thing: Make it harder to game the system. Lawmakers should do no less before they adjourn in two weeks.