Time for retire-rehire to end in state

The city of DuPont apparently missed the whole statewide debate two years ago about concerns over double-dipping by public employees. It is at least oblivious to negative public perception by hiring a former cop with a $90,000-plus public pension as the city’s new chief of police at a salary of $82,000.

Who wouldn’t want to receive two paychecks for doing the same job? If state law allows collecting a public pension and a publicly funded salary at the same time, no one can blame the employee for taking advantage.

It’s the law that has to change.

After a 2010 investigation by The Seattle Times found that more than 2,000 people were collecting both a salary and a pension, often for doing the same job and more frequently in higher education, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed to end the practice entirely.

Unfortunately, state legislators disagreed. They left in place a 2003 law that limits the number of hours a state employee could work and still receive a full pension. It limits firefighters and law enforcement retirees to 1,800 hours per year, and other workers at 867 hours.

That left a loophole big enough for DuPont to drive a SWAT van through. The city’s new police chief for 8,800 people will work “part time,” or about 34.6 hours per week to stay under the 1,800-hour cap, which allows him to earn a combined pension and salary compensation of more than $170,000.

State officials are already seeking to recover $550,000 from DuPont for excess pension payments to the city’s former fire chief who recently resigned after improperly double-dipping to the tune of $300,000 per year.

It’s a problem the state legislature created, and one it alone can fix.

Legislators expanded opportunities for pensioned state workers to return to work in 2001, but after reports of abuses put limitations on the number of hours those employees could work just two years later.

In 2011, the state Senate passed a measure to further tighten up the rules by a 43 to 1 vote. It failed to get past the House during a second special session. Another reform bill failed again this year.

The upcoming Legislature should terminate the so-called retire-rehire program.

The state loses money when a worker draws both a salary and a public pension at the same time because the prospect of being rehired encourages workers to retire earlier. A state study in 2005 reached that conclusion. And that further drains a pension system for older retirees that is already underfunded.

According to the State Budget Crisis Task Force, the diminishing number of workers supporting retirees drawing public pensions is a national problem, brought on in part by retiring baby boomers but also recession-forced cuts to government workforces. In 1991, there were three workers contributing to pension plans for every beneficiary. In 2011, the ratio dropped to 1.8 workers per pensioner.

In our new economic reality, it’s time to end the program.

Eliminating the state’s retire-rehire policy won’t fix the state budget or produce the billions needed to fund K-12 schools as required by the McCleary decision, but every penny counts. And eliminating the program will send the message that government is ferreting out wasteful spending wherever and whenever it can.