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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Sick leave, briefly

by folkbum

I don't have a lot of time this morning, so I have to be quick: An initiative to kill Wisconsin legislators' sick leave has died, again, and the blame is placed squarely on Democrats this morning:
The Republican-controlled Assembly was poised to pass the measure late Tuesday but was held up by a procedural move by a Democrat. Meanwhile, Democrats who control the Senate indicated the bill is going nowhere in that house. And Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle said that with changes to the reporting process, the sick leave benefit should continue. [. . .]

Just before the Assembly was to take a final vote on the measure, Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids) objected and pushed it off until the Assembly meets next on March 1. The bill's author, Rep. Pat Strachota (R-West Bend), said she expects the bill to pass then.

Schneider declined to say why he had objected to a final vote, although he has been a vocal opponent of efforts to end the sick leave benefit. Schneider has more than $110,000 worth of sick leave accumulated, although the bill wouldn't affect what elected officials have already earned.
The issue has been a whipping post for the conservatives who live in your radio and in your computer, and this will give them plenty of fodder for the next few weeks. Never mind that the chief champion of the idea to tank the benefit is Democrat Sheldon Wasserman, and never mind that a Republican-controlled legislature sat on its thumbs about it for years before Democrats even had the kind of authority to stop it that they do now.

But more importantly, I think conseratives' reflexive hatred of all things Benefit--like sick leave and health care and pensions--is short-sighted in general and particularly stupid in this case.

Just thinking about legislators, never mind the "constitutional officers, justices, judges and district attorneys" who would also be affected by the measure, the policy is one that makes sense to me. Consider that if I were to run for the legislature and win next year, I'd be taking a pay cut (depending on how, um, flexible I was with my use of the "per diem" money). Many of the most-qualified people to be legislators--attorneys, academics, business leaders--would be in the same position. It would be a tremendous cut for your Charlie Sykeses and Mark Bellings, even your Owen Robinsons. And, face it, not everyone can be Bob Ziegelbauer and hold two elected offices at once. In other words, no one goes into state government to get rich, and no one comes out rich, either.

What the sick leave benefit offers legislators (and the others listed above) is not some grand cash payout upon retirement or the kind of golden parachute companies provide for a CEO who lost his company profit and market share (later, please, can someone explain how that even remotely makes sense?).

Instead, what the sick leave benefit allows retirees to do is pay for a part of their health care when they retire. That's it. That's the whole thing, the entire bug that has crawled up the behinds of the conservatives. It's true that some of the legislators have accumulated totals that seem astronomical; but the biggest of those stockpiles will never get completely used up, with the unspent balances remaining just that, unspent. The total real cost to taxpayers, no matter how often the Journal Sentinel repeats its $3.2 million number, is negligible.

But it makes it just a little bit easier to talk someone into serving the public interest. Knowing that the benefit is there may be enough for someone like me (though not me, since I don't want to) to take the plunge into public life and accept that pay cut.

Look, if Wisconsin's conservatives can can complain about how low pay is dangerous for the federal judiciary, then surely they can consider how a similar case can be made for those--and not just legislators--who serve the state as well.

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