We shouldn’t pay lawmakers to make laws

by Jim Longworth

State Sen. Phil Berger has proposed a bill that would deny retirement benefits to any lawmaker convicted of a felony. There are, however, two problems with this long overdue action. First, it will not apply to former House Speaker Jim Black, who will collect over $3,000 of our money every month for the rest of his corrupt life. And second, Berger’s bill doesn’t address the real flaw in our system that made his proposal necessary in the first place.

Pensions and retiree benefits should be reserved for teachers, police officers and fire fighters, not for politicians. But legislators only receive pensions because they received salaries, and there’s the rub.

At the Constitutional Convention, Pennsylvania delegate and forward thinker Benjamin Franklin proposed that elected officials not be paid for their service. Old Ben would be disturbed, but not surprised, to know how things have turned out, even in his home state where Bush’s buddy, Gov. Tom Ridge, snuck through a closed-door deal in 2001 to double the amount of legislator pensions! Franklin’s proposal was voted out in 1789, but even so the Founding Fathers didn’t go wild with perks. For the first 26 years of our republic, congressmen received no salary, but were allowed a per diem of $6 whenever they were in session. It wasn’t until 1815 that federal lawmakers picked up paychecks, the first of which were worth $1,500 per year.

Today rank and file members of Congress are paid $165,000, plus expenses, and their leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, makes $212,000. Yes, Congress has voted to refuse cost of living increases, but that doesn’t let us taxpayers off the hook. That’s because upon retirement from capitol duty, our representatives and senators rake in an average pension of $60,000 per year for life.

Meanwhile, the states are footing quite a bill to make their legislators comfortable and secure. It’s no wonder, then, that many states have already taken steps to deal with the problem. Last year New Jersey Assemblyman Joe Bramnick called for the elimination of pensions for all state lawmakers. Bramnick argued that legislators only work part time, and therefore do not deserve a pension or benefits.

California was way ahead of the curve. Back in 1990 Golden State voters approved term limits and effectively killed the pension program.

And in 2000, after eight years of court battles, a Florida law finally went into effect which restricted legislators from serving more than eight consecutive years in office.

Here in North Carolina, as in most states, legislators don’t get rich from the salaries we pay them because most of them only earn about $15,000 per year. But, again, salary is the enabler for long-term financial drains to taxpayers as we continue to foot the bill for pensions and benefits.

Right now, many states face a budget crisis with regards to how they hope to cover the costs of public sector pensions. And while elimination of politicians from the equation wouldn’t solve our fiscal problems, it would be a symbolic step in the right direction.

The fact is that no state, local or federally elected official was ever meant to be a full-time lawmaker. We are a nation formed by citizen legislators who volunteered to serve the public on a temporary basis. Our lawmakers are supposed to have jobs back home to return to. Ben Franklin knew that. He also knew what salaries would lead to. He knew that men would become hungry for power and that power corrupts. He knew that treating lawmakers like employees could lead to a full time Congress. Yet Franklin’s cronies couldn’t resist the temptation of paying salaries, which then set pensions and perks in motion for all time.

Congress and most state governments have made elected office a full time job. They stay in session longer to pass more bills that aren’t necessary, and those bills create more red tape for the local, state and federal bureaucracy to process. I like Nancy Pelosi, but her nose-to-the-grindstone gimmick went a bit far when she required Congress to be in DC all week long. That goes against the grain of the citizen legislature, and prevents representatives from having time to tend to their real jobs, or to communicate directly with constituents. If the speaker and her counterparts on the state level are serious about substantive reforms, then they should shorten sessions, institute a three-day work week even while in session, eliminate salaries, do away with pensions and impose term limits.

We have pampered our politicians for far too long. We’ve put them on pedestals and let them run roughshod over our tax dollars and our liberties. We keep re-electing them even though they have done nothing to deserve our loyalty. We don’t question their decisions and we vote in lower numbers than do people in some Third World countries. The result is that we are collectively paying millions of dollars in salaries, pensions and perks to people who should be volunteering their services for a couple of years at most. In that regard, we are paying the price for not paying attention.

Jim Black was a bad apple in a barrel full of politicians hoping to serve in Raleigh for a lifetime, then live off of taxpayers for the rest of their lives. Between the apple and the barrel, I’m not sure which has committed the greater crime.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).