Florida's economic outlook has worsened since last spring, but for 1,400 state employees, their personal financial picture has only improved. That's the number, in round figures, of the new "double-dippers" in Florida government, workers who receive both a state pension and a government paycheck.
The new crop brings to 9,397 the total number of state and local government employees who are double- and triple-dipping, the St. Petersburg Times reported last week. More than 9,000 are regular employees. But 25 of the newest double-dippers are a whole other breed: They are officials who were re-elected to their office in November who never told voters their plans were to "retire" for 30 days in December to game the Florida Retirement System. The Legislature failed last spring to close the loophole that allows the high-paid officials to double-dip. It should do so now. To continue the status quo is an insult to taxpayers and those who will be affected by coming state budget cuts.
As Times' senior correspondent Lucy Morgan reported, double-dipping elected officials include school board members in 44 of Florida's 67 counties, 14 sheriffs, 11 circuit clerks, three state attorneys, four public defenders, 24 judges, county commissioners from 21 counties, eight property appraisers, seven tax collectors, two elections supervisors and officials from 26 towns and cities. Also double-dipping are 175 of the most senior, highly-paid staff. Many have gamed the system to collect a lump-sum "retirement" payout that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars and then return to their job.
Beneficiaries, such as Willie Meggs of Tallahassee, the 2nd Judicial Circuit's longtime state attorney, argues it costs taxpayers no money since his replacement under law would earn the same amount as him and that he's earned his pension benefits. Meggs, who spent his 30-day retirement working on a new home last month, received a lump sum benefit of $519,995 (the equivalent of five years of pension benefits plus interest). Back at work this month, he will collect his $153,139 annual salary and a monthly pension of $7,749.
But Meggs, and other defenders of the practice, are missing the basic point. Indeed, the $13-million in salaries for double-dipping elected officials would be spent on others making the same salary, but the $16-million spent on salaries for renewed members of the state pension fund would be substantially lower if veteran senior management employees were replaced by younger, lower-paid employees.
In fact, the very program that gave Meggs the big lump-sum payout, called the Deferred Retirement Option Program, was aimed at encouraging highly paid employees to retire and make way for others who would make less. Under DROP, public employees who are 62 or have at least 30 years of service retire but continue working for up to five years while their retirement benefits are deposited in a special account.
In 2001 state lawmakers tweaked the DROP program so one of their own members could benefit. The result has been a flood of state employees and elected officials working the system for financial gain at the same time they're preventing younger employees from being promoted or clearing the way for younger political aspirants.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, plan to introduce bills during the regular legislative session that begins in March to limit which state officials can take advantage of the law. But similar legislation last spring was blocked by double- and triple-dipping legislators.
The current economic climate should curb such arrogance. Next year's budget gap could be as high as $5.8-billion, and anticipated cuts will affect millions of Floridians, many of whom are already struggling, don't have pensions or employer-paid health care. Lawmakers should look everywhere for cost savings — including curbing their own pension largesse. They should be too ashamed to keep feathering their own nest.