Politics & Other Mistakes: Pension tension

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As if he didn’t have enough stuff to be outraged about, Gov. Paul LePage has found something new to affront his warped sensibilities.

LePage has discovered that some government employees are collecting both a regular paycheck and a monthly pension. According to the governor, this is “repulsive,” “unconscionable” and “absolutely disgusting.”

That’s a reasonable review of “The Human Centipede,” but a little extreme for a critique of the adept financial planning of a handful of public workers. While it might appear as if they’re getting paid twice to do one job, the reality is a little more nuanced. And nuance is not one of LePage’s strong suits.

This issue has cropped up from time to time over the past couple of decades, usually when some high-profile administrator decides to take advantage of the law and engage in what the guv considers “double dipping.”

In the most recent case, Eric Haley, superintendent of schools in Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro, announced his retirement, effective in late October. This enables Haley, 63, to collect a monthly check from the Maine Public Employees Retirement System.

No real controversy there. The guy paid into that fund for years. He’s entitled to the money. But here’s where Haley’s plans conflict with LePage’s limited grasp of reality: Thirty days after he retires, the ex-superintendent will be rehired for his old job. From then on, he’ll collect both his pension and a paycheck, which will total significantly more than the $130,000 a year he was making before he (briefly) retired.

Does that seem wrong? Before you answer, consider this: The move actually saves taxpayers in Haley’s school district money. That’s because state law limits the amount he can be paid to 75 percent of his old salary. So, instead of $130,000, Haley will earn about $99,000 a year. With the $31,000 in savings, Waterville can hire an extra ed-tech or purchase new textbooks or upgrade the mystery meat in the cafeteria.

Haley gets paid more. The schools have extra cash. And the public is responsible for no more than it would have been if none of this had happened.

Where’s the harm?

According to our perpetually outraged governor, there’s plenty. LePage told the Morning Sentinel, “A lot of teachers double-dip, and we’re paying those people a long time at a very high salary – a very high retirement cost.”

Those bloodsuckers should have the common courtesy to die.

“The poor teachers who have only got a few years, they’re underpaid.”

That could be corrected by the state paying its legally mandated share of 55 percent of local education costs.

Setting aside the governor’s seemingly contradictory objections to paying some teachers a high salary for a long time and some a low salary for a short time, there’s another solid reason for continuing to allow educators to keep working after their nominal retirement.

According to the state Department of Education, Maine faces a serious shortage of qualified teachers in grades K-12 in such areas as special education, math, science and world languages. Nationwide, nearly 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year, and their replacements are in short supply. In this state, the number of college students receiving education degrees fell from about 1,200 in 2007 to less than 800 in 2015.

I realize that nobody enters the teaching profession with the expectation of getting rich, but it’s worth speculating that the prospect of a little extra money toward the end of a career might prove an enticement to keep working.

One more reason to allow double dipping: Educators, like other public employees, receive state retirement benefits rather than Social Security. Fair enough. But under federal law, teachers who work second jobs in the private sector (and a lot of them do) are penalized upon retirement, receiving a Social Security check that’s reduced to as little as 40 percent of the amount they’d normally be entitled to.

Speaking of entitled, Maine’s governor becomes just that the day he or she takes office. Retired governors, regardless of how long they serve, receive a pension equal to three-eighths of the salary paid to the current governor, which is $70,000. That means LePage can look forward to annual checks totaling at least $26,250 for the rest of his life, even if he spends his declining years in his house in Florida.

Is that also “repulsive”?

For a transcript of this week’s column, email aldiamon@herniahill.net. Or you could avoid the bother by using your computer and printer. Yeah, do that.

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