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One dip or two?

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State Rep. Allen Kerr, a Little Rock Republican, has blown the lid off a decade-old scheme in which elected county officials had figured out a way to draw both regular and retirement pay, with the public none the wiser.

In 1999, the legislature passed a law that allowed state employees to capture both retirement and regular pay. They could “retire” for 30 days and then reapply for the same job. If rehired — and they generally were — they could knock down two checks. This was sold as a way to boost state employee pay without cost to the state and to retain veteran employees. Because of abuse, the retirement period was extended by the legislature this year to 180 days.

Since computerized record-keeping began in 2001, more than 300 state employees have qualified to draw both regular and retirement pay. It is perfectly legal, even if the rehiring has generally been a sham competition. But elected county officials haven't been so pristine in capitalizing on the law.

A number of county elected officials — including three recent Garland County retirees — declared themselves retired by virtue of simply stopping county paychecks. And they did it secretly. They took steps to keep their taxpayer-subsidized insurance plans current, of course. They continued to work. When their statutory “retirement” period was up, the officials “rehired” themselves and began drawing two checks.

An attorney general's opinion sought by Rep. Kerr says retirement pay is allowed only on termination of employment. Termination would seem to mean a vacant office. The three Garland County officials never notified the Quorum Court of their “retirements.” They kept working, though, if retired, they were not legally authorized to do so.

What now? Kerr has the legislative audit division compiling a list of county elected officials who are drawing two checks. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has vowed to review the findings thoroughly. It's sensitive, because most county courthouses are run by politically-connected Democrats.

If the elected officials legally retired, the actions they took during “retirement” were illegal. If they did not legally retire, they should repay the retirement checks they received.

The legislature needs to erase the loophole that still exists for elected officials — who have the significant benefit of double-counting their years of service toward retirement. At a minimum, their “retirement” decisions must be announced before primary election season in May when they plan a return the following January. Voters should know a double-dip is in the works, if we are to keep the double-dipping system at all.

Kerr's effort is what loyal opposition to an entrenched political party is all about.

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