Online Exclusive

Scapegoating the Public Sector

In the not-too-distant past police, firefighters, schoolteachers, and other public sector workers, while perhaps criticized by certain individuals or groups for real or perceived grievances, were collectively seen as essential and valued.  Politicians or ranking government administrators were free game, of course, but even they knew that to attack line level public employees – and perhaps especially those working in public safety and education – was a political third rail.  The thought of reducing public sector workers was directly akin to reducing services and safety.  To question compensation, benefits, or that they deserved a solid, well-funded retirement after years of dedicated service was virtually unheard of.  The political class knew that people might rail against law enforcement or the education system in the abstract but they took care to remember Tip O’Neill’s classic adage that “all politics is local.”  “Criticize the screwed up educational system all you want, but you’d better leave Mrs. Smith or Coach Thomas alone!  THEY work hard every day!”  “ Sure, we see stories about corruption all the time on the news, but that’s not MY beat cop!  She really went the extra mile when we were burglarized.  Besides, she willingly puts her life on the line for us!”

Well, those days are largely gone and we may never see them again.  Scapegoating of public employees has become one of the enduring legacies of our weakened economy as the regular citizens who make their livings in the private sector continue to feel economically vulnerable in a still shaky economy.  They gaze upon we public employees and question our worth – in salary, benefits, and even our actual contribution to society – with skepticism if not outright hostility.  The politicians know this and more and more are riding that wave of skepticism – cynically, I believe – or choosing political expediency over good policy to score points with angry constituents at our expense.  Current politics, it seems, rarely takes the long view or, if it does, ignores it in favor of what scores points from voters now.  Public pensions are one of those former third rail topics that now engender skepticism and even outrage from fiscally nervous voters who look on our retirement plans with envy.  Couple that with the economic downturn of the last half decade that exposed weaknesses and underfunding in many pension systems and suddenly we’ve become the enemy in many peoples’ eyes. 

In Illinois, the state we work and live (and where nearly 43% of our last 7 governors have not gone to prison despite rumors of widespread political corruption), a new bill in the Illinois General Assembly has been introduced that further takes aim at public employees.  House Bill 3760 (HB3760) is written to amend the Illinois Pension Code in a way aptly described by its nickname (the “Retirement Means Retirement Act”).  The bill, introduced and sponsored by House Representative Jack D Franks (D – Marengo), seems intended to address the alleged problem of so called “double-dipping” by public employees.  In sort, “double-dipping” is (loosely) defined by some as when a public employee – say, police officer – retires from one public job, begins collecting an earned retirement pension, and then goes back to work in another pension-building public sector job collecting both salary and paying into a future, additional pension.  Franks’ bill, while not truly prohibiting retired public employees from one job taking on a new but different public job, instead limits the amount of earned pension a retiree can collect by offsetting it by the current earned compensation. 

While most of us in law enforcement are able to retire relatively young and enter another line of work, and do so, most often that work is private sector.  A small but not insignificant number of us – as well as retired teachers, firefighters, and other public employees – do choose to remain in public service even if the new jobs differ greatly from the old.  Often, the new positions pay into different pension fund than the one being collected in retirement so the publics’ accusations of “double-dipping” fail the sniff test.  Nonetheless, strict definitions mean little in politics, nor does the fact that the monies being collected from one pension are earned but deferred compensation from the prior job and have no legal bearing on the current one.  Political expediency doesn’t allow for educating the public on the legal nuances of pension codes or what true “double-dipping” is; political expediency demands action in the face of public outrage, whether the outrage fits the perceived offense or not.

- - - - - - - -

The purpose of this article is not to dissect or debate Representative Franks’ proposed law; from a practical standpoint it means little to most of you unless you live in Illinois.  But to those of us who do live and work here, and may someday want to sidestep into another realm of public service, its ramifications are huge.   Its purpose is twofold:  First, to raise awareness of how politicians, at all levels and in all locales, are scapegoating public employees more than ever and why.  And second, to ask the question, “What can or should we do about it?”

Too often the answer to “What can or should we do about it?” seems to be, “Whine, b*tch, complain, and play the ‘everybody hates us’ card.”  And, as much fun as that always is, it tends to really do little more than breed cynicism and self-pity.  Now is the time to demand respect back from the public and politicians who used to at least pay it in lip service to us.  Whether you are a “front-lines” type, willing to take a formal or informal leadership role of some sort, or more behind the scenes by supporting those who are born leaders, get involved.  Read and follow the news religiously, and know what your local and state political representatives are up to.  Be willing to support those who have your back in the halls of power either financially or with volunteer labor should the call arise.  If you have the gift and inclination, write!  Write your elected representatives and the media, not to mention politically active groups and individuals whether they’re on your side or not.  Remember, The Pen is Mightier than the Sword!  Befriend a reporter or two.  They don’t bite (really, they don’t) and, if they are reputable, will abide by journalistic ethics.  Being able to drop an email (possibly confidentially, if you ask) to one you trust and who trusts you can be mutually beneficial.  It doesn’t mean they drop their objectivity – they must have that intact – but gives you an outlet and a contact, while they gain access to information that’s not pre-packaged and controlled for media consumption.    

And, maybe most importantly, talk to regular folks.  Make yourself real and accessible.  Be open - but not cynical – with your regulars on the beat about such political concerns and threats to our job, for when you do this with enough of those regulars there is the possible effect of, “I told two people, and they each told two people, who each told two people…”  It’s hard to scapegoat someone or their profession when that someone is a friend, or a friend of a friend. 

In short, be alert, be involved, and be positive.   I mentioned earlier in this article that the days of scapegoating used to be a political third rail but that “those days are largely gone and we may never see them again.”  Note I said we “may” never see them again.  We still might, but it’s going to be up to us.