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What’s in a name?

Wordgames in state government September 15, 2011 at 3:59 a.m.

— IT’S AN old rule in politics: When a policy sounds fishy, don’t change the policy. Just change the name.

That way, people might not notice that the policymakers are still up to their old tricks, just under a different label: “System relabels ‘rehired retirees’/ But they still get pay and pension”—Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Page 1, September 11, 2011.

Whatever they’re officially called, the thousands of state employees who are both retired and still on the state payroll go on collecting two checks. Calling them Rehired Retirees would be too accurate a description of their sweet deal.

Instead, the director of the state’s teacher retirement system—George Hopkins—has decided that henceforth they shall be called “working retirees.” That sounds a little better, if not much.

What’s in a name? Not much in this case. These same, only technically retired state employees are still on the job—and they’re still getting two checks from the taxpayers instead of one. The reality hasn’t changed, just the name.

Director Hopkins says he decided to change the name because of the confusion it caused. But it’s not the public that’s confused—or trying to confuse the issue. The general public understands full well what’s going on here. That’s why, in popular parlance, those who are hitting up the taxpayers twice for doing only one job are known as double-dippers.

It’s a simple, easily understandable and all too accurate tag, double-dipping. No wonder it irritates those who see nothing wrong with letting public employees game the system. It hits home. It’s candid. It lets the taxpayer know just what’s going on. It avoids verbal camouflage, unlike so much governmental doublespeak.

How many of the rest of us, whose taxes support those on the government’s payroll, would be allowed to retire with full benefits while staying on the job at the same salary—or even more? No wonder workers in the private sector resent this favored treatment for public employees.

Just how much double-dipping is there in state government? The story by Michael Wickline on the front page of Sunday’s paper reported that at least 4,100 rehired retirees—excuse us, working retirees—can still be found in state government. They cost Arkansas taxpayers a total of $89.4 million in salaries last fiscal year, and $84.1 million in pension payments. Which works out to an average salary of $21,800 a year plus an average annual pension of $20,500. Or a total of some $42,300 a year per employee.

Note: These totals don’t count the 521 double-dippers in the separate Public Employees Retirement System. Some of them are collecting $100,000-a-year salaries in addition to their pensions. What a neat arrangement. Just not for the taxpayers who have to foot the bill.

It’s not easy to tell just which double-dippers are drawing just how much from the state treasury. To do that, you’d have to know their top pay grade for 36 months, how many years they put in before “retiring,” and the formula used to calculate their pension benefits.

To do all that, to quote Allen Kerr, a state representative from Little Rock who’s been trying to reform this system for years without much success, “You just about would have to hire a retirement actuary.”

There’s no way to just call up a handy website, type in a name, and find out exactly how much each of these double-dippers is costing you the taxpayer. That would be too simple, too direct, too open. No sense making it easy for the public to find out what its state government is doing—and for whom.

IS THIS what Governor Mike Beebe calls transparency in government? It sounds more like obfuscation in government. Like claiming his choice of a political buddy as director of higher education in Arkansas fulfilled the legal requirement. Really? In its official opinion this week, the state attorney general’s office took a different view, concluding that the director had to be appointed through a searchand-select process and have actual experience in higher education. Just as the law says. Who says lawyers can’t see the obvious?

There’s a simple enough solution to the continuing embarrassment and outrage called double-dipping: Just give all these rehired retirees—by whatever name—the same choice so many of us who don’t work for state government have: Either retire and collect benefits or stay on the job and keep collecting a salary. One or the other. Which sounds fair enough. Instead of letting all these rehired retirees do both, that is, doubledip. It’s not the labels that need changing but the system itself.

The state legislature could fix this problem—if it had the will. And if the state had a strong leader instead of a governor who may be for economical government in the abstract, but shows little interest in actually reforming a tricky arrangement that undermines public confidence in state government—and in him.

Editorial, Pages 16 on 09/15/2011

Print Headline: What’s in a name?

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