tampabay.com

Bills curb double-dipping

Lawmakers' proposals would end the collection of both retirement and salary checks.

By Lucy Morgan, Times Senior Correspondent
Published March 4, 2008


TALLAHASSEE - Stung by angry cries from citizens, state lawmakers are drafting bills that could put an end to future double-dipping by some members of the state retirement system.

But they say they can't stop everyone already getting a pension and a salary.

The bills would close a loophole created in 2001 that has allowed growing numbers of elected officials and state employees to collect retirement benefits and a state salary at the same time.

The state spends more than $300-million on salaries for double-dipping employees who have returned to the state payroll after "retiring." The list includes more than 200 elected officials, 200 senior management employees and 7,700 regular employees.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Senate President Ken Pruitt called him the day the St. Petersburg Times published a story about the double-dipping and directed him to do whatever needs to be done to fix the problem.

Fasano said staff attorneys don't believe they can legally take pensions or jobs away from those already double-dipping, but they can stop it in the future. And they can force elected officials and judges to choose between retirement benefits and salaries as their terms expire.

"We have heard from constituents everywhere," Fasano said. "They are saying. 'Please change this law, this is unacceptable."'

Many of those who complained were senior citizens with fixed incomes far below the big salaries and retirement benefits some state officials have received, Fasano said.

The Times also heard from hundreds of outraged Floridians. Many complaints came from former state employees who say they were denied the right to stick around while "a select chosen few were extended the courtesy of favoritism."

"Taxpayers should be mad as hell about this happening," said John Cooper, chief of emergency services for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. "What a disgraceful double standard."

Several readers compared the largesse for some public officials with the current effort to cut state and local budgets in the wake of falling tax revenues and increased property tax exemptions.

A few people defended the system, saying retirees should have the right to return to work at government agencies after earning benefits.

Identities are hidden

Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, filed the House bill. "I think the whole process is wrong," he said. "I don't think we should be conducting business this way; this is taxpayer money.

"It's an important bill. I don't see why anyone would oppose it."

Besides limiting double-dipping, Fasano said he wants to change a section of the law that protects the identities of retirees.

The Times argued that the double-dippers are not retired, and Gov. Charlie Crist ordered state retirement officials to release the lists last month, saying the law was never intended to block the release of information about how taxpayer money is spent.

But some governmental agencies are still protecting the identity and compensation of their double-dippers.

Many of those taking advantage of the law are in the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program, called DROP, created in 1998 as a way to encourage senior employees nearing retirement to make way for younger, lower-paid employees.

Those entering DROP were expected to retire within five years; the state deposits retirement benefits the employee would have received for those five years and pays them 6.5 percent interest on the benefits. When they retire, many of them get hundreds of thousands of dollars in deferred benefits, in addition to pensions and salaries.

The DROP benefit stops after five years for most employees, but lawmakers have allowed teachers and a few other employees where shortages exist to remain an extra 36 months.

Some double-dippers argue that they are not costing the state any money because someone would be hired to fill their positions if they didn't return to the payroll. But lawmakers who created the DROP program say the system was designed to promote younger, lower-paid employees.

State pays all

The state fully funds pensions with contributions of about $2.5-billion a year. No money is contributed by employees. In addition to state employees, the retirement system covers 900 other government agencies, including many cities, counties and school boards.

Double-dipping has steadily increased since legislators quietly amended retirement laws on the last day of session in 2001 to allow some lawmakers to collect state retirement checks in addition to their legislative salaries.

Former Rep. Gaston Cantens, a Republican from Miami, offered the amendment to help a fellow legislator who had worked for a school district with "a retirement problem."

Cantens, now vice president of corporate relations for Florida Crystals, a sugar company, said Monday that he never intended for officials to continue drawing their regular salary plus a retirement benefit but was trying to let people who were in the DROP program continue working.

"It certainly wasn't the intent to allow full-time elected officials to be able to stay on in the same position and collect retirement benefits."

Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.