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.