When right-wing scolds complain about the supposed perks of public service, nothing gets them going like collectively-bargained former basics everyone used to enjoy, like adequate pensions and progressive sick leave policies. Without this kind of jealousy-inducing coal to stoke the fires of their precious angry-white-male demographic, Mark Belling and Charlie Sykes might have to get real jobs, rather than reading GOP talking-point scripts all day.
Always willing to provide fodder for our whining radio wing-nuts, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel front-paged a review of the use of sick leave by legislators on Sunday that made it look like various lawmakers were sitting at home with their dislocated hips and triple bypasses, laughingly blowing off their time on the state clock, without so much as a nod to the supposed need to file whatever form it is to have the hours they are unavailable docked from their sick leave bank.
This is supposedly significant – claims the article, with the subtlety of a two-by-four – because state employees of all stripes, including legislators, can trade unused sick leave for continued state-paid health insurance after they retire (or, lose an election). Do you realize, you stupid people, that these lawmakers are going to be able to take advantage of this outrageously luxurious end-of-career health care? But they didn’t take sick leave when they were sick! Get the torches and let’s head for the Capitol!
There was enough superficial hand-wringing in the article to give the whole state carpal tunnel. The always-reliable Jay Heck of Common Cause waxed apocalyptic: "It's one of those things that makes people very suspicious of legislators." Well, not very high on the list, but, um, sure. But who is going to decide who is sick and what is a work day for a legislator? Do fundraisers count? I mean, I thought that wack job suggesting teachers arm themselves (Rep. Frank Lasee, R-Green Bay) was pretty sick – can I make him take a sick day? But the state’s political purity police and their constant enablers at the J-S don’t want to be confused by the facts while they’re trying to work up an indignant lather.
Even statehouse veterans like Sen. Mike Ellis and Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (a swell Lake Park Little League dad, by the way – Go White Sox!) were called on to give the politically-safe disclaimers. Stating the obvious, Wasserman claimed "Sick leave is for when you are sick." No wonder the only-paper-in-town has its undies in a bundle.
The real target in all this nonsense is not the legislators, or even the last remnants of the Journal Sentinel’s dignity. No, the real target is the "perk" itself, a smart element of the state employee benefit package. If the carry-over for health care language wasn’t there in the package (or, more significantly, in the state employee union contracts), you would be reading and Heck would be breathing heavily about those lazy state employees using all their sick leave before retirement. But they don’t do that and, as a former union rep for about 4,000 of those fine people in the 90's, I know many of them who overcome minor and major ailments and do their good work in the trenches everyday, sick leave carryover or not.
And, at a time when every legitimate politician should be trying to figure out how to get as many people covered by health insurance as possible, why are the wingers and hand-wringers always trying to pick people out of the pool of the already-insured? It is actually a good thing that thousands of retired state employees are still covered under the state plan after they are done working – that means those thousands are not scraping by with no or inferior health care options. It means less people to worry about while we try to solve the health insurance crisis. Same thing with same-sex or unmarried partners – who cares? More people are covered. That’s progress, in more ways than one.
But, no. The Journal Sentinel has its campaigns, and here comes another one. What? Sen. Fred Risser (age 79) has over $160,000 to spend recklessly on health insurance after he retires? Stop the Insanity!
UPDATE: The other shoe dropped today in the J-S, with the paper screaming across the top of its front page that all those bad convicted legislators will be able to convert their sick-leave balances, just like everyone else. The "perk awaits" them, says the headline. You can just imagine Gary George sitting in federal prison, just waiting to get his hands on all that precious health care. Oh, the humanity!
Having set the issue up in the news pages, the edit page knocks 'em down: "It should end," the editorial concludes, no doubt with "da-dum" sound effects playing in the writers' heads.
Again, this is a solution looking for a problem. More insured people is a good thing. Most of the $3.2 million (I'm sorry -- $3.2 million!) in carryovers will never be used by ex-legislators because of old age, better benefits with other employers or Medicare. Now, if we could just get the J-S to go into campaign mode on the real crisis of the uninsured working poor...nah, maybe not. It's hard to get a pull-quote from Jay Heck on that one.