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Published: Wednesday, 6/25/2003

Finish off double-dipping

The public interest in Ohio endured another mugging last week when a House-Senate conference made 450 amendments to the 2004-05 state budget during a day-night session that lasted 12 hours.

One of the blackjack amendments was a measure - pushed through at 3 a.m. by state Rep. Jim Hoops (R., Napoleon) -that would retain the unethical practice of elected officials double-dipping on their salary and pension.

Governor Taft ought to veto this stealth measure. But, even if he doesn't, the legislature should get on with the business of banning double-dipping altogether. It's simply bad public policy.

State law allows officeholders with long service to retire from their jobs after re-election, obtain a pension, then come back to work almost immediately as an elected official - drawing two public checks instead of one.

This was the scenario attempted in 2002 by Lucas County Commissioner Sandy Isenberg. After a public outcry, Ms. Isenberg changed her mind, but angry voters defeated her re-election bid by choosing Maggie Thurber.

Because he was unopposed for re-election, Jack Puffenberger, the county probate judge, blithely ignored the public ire and was able to overcome a serious write-in bid. So did a number of other judges around the state, including Paul Moon, of Ottawa County Common Pleas Court, and Michael Bumb, of Fulton County Probate Court.

This is a lucrative move for officials who have been in public life long enough to qualify for a pension. Judge Puffenberger, for example, draws his $107,600 a year salary, plus a pension of about $70,000.

The Hoops amendment would give the public and prospective opponents a longer warning period when an official plans to double dip, but that's not good enough. Double-dipping should be banned completely.

Rep. Lynn Olman (R., Maumee) is sponsor of a bill to end the practice, in which a would-be double-dipper is required to give public notice 90 days before the general election. Mr. Hoops' measure would merely shift the deadline to 90 days before the primary election.

Mr. Hoops wasn't able to get his legislation through the House, but, as a member of the budget panel, he was able to slip it into a must-pass bill - the budget - headed straight for the governor's desk.

The argument against double-dipping is simple. There was never any intention for the public to pay out a pension when an elected official is still drawing a salary.

Many officials, including Ms. Isenberg and Judge Puffenberger, contended that the practice was justified, since they contributed to a public employee pension fund, and the money was theirs to keep.

What that argument ignored is that taxpayers made at least half of the pension contributions. Pensions are for officials who have stopped working, not to enrich them unduly while they're still in office.

Mr. Hoops may think he's improving the situation by providing for easier election challenges to double-dippers. But all he is doing is reminding taxpayers of this infuriating raid on the public treasury, while giving legislators cover for failing to do what's right.



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