Better to remain silent sometimes

Published 8:43 pm Saturday, June 13, 2009

The cost of providing health and retirement benefits to state employees and teachers is obscene. No private sector employer that I know of provides the level of quality benefits which the state does at no cost or nominal cost to the employee.

The cost of these benefits escalates every year, often the result of unfunded mandates by a Legislature so beholden to the teachers’ and employees’ unions that it turns a blind eye to the fiscal catastrophe which lies just ahead. Compounding the Legislature’s willingness to saddle the system with unfunded benefit increases are the recent stock market losses which have cost the state’s retirement funds billions of dollars.

Although figures for the state’s Employees’ Retirement System will not be released until later this week, figures for the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) were disclosed last week. According to The Birmingham News the value of the stocks, bonds and other assets in the TRS dropped from $21.9 billion on September 30, 2007 to $14.1 billion as of March 31, 2009. That’s a drop of 35.7 percent in 18 months.

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Irrespective of stock market fluctuations, the taxpayers of Alabama are required to pay the escalating costs of health and retirement benefits for their teachers, employees, retirees and dependants. Since the Legislature has proven it has no stomach for increasing employee contributions to these programs, the only way lawmakers can meet these fast-rising obligations is to either cut funding to other vital functions of government and education or (gasp) increase our taxes.

The cost of providing health and retirement benefits for active and retired employees and teachers grew more than 240 percent in the last decade, from $666.7 million in 1999 to more than $2.25 billion this year. Alabama cannot sustain that type of growth rate. The Legislature must not only stop approving unfunded cost increases, it must also take a serious, hard look at reforms which allow the beneficiaries to share the burden with the taxpayers.

In the meantime, officials are quick to reassure state retirees that their pension benefits are guaranteed by the state of Alabama. Retirement Systems CEO David Bronner, well known for his ability to crack wise, said the state is on the hook for making good on promised pension payments.

Despite the fact that one of his pension funds has lost more than one-third of its value in the last year-and-a-half, Bronner flashed his best Alfred E. Neuman grin and quipped: “The state is stuck.”

The taxpayers of Alabama are not likely reassured by Bronner’s equivalent of “What, me worry?”

“Stupid is as stupid does.” The words of Alabama’s most famous contemporary philosopher, Forrest Gump, mean simply to judge me by my actions, not by my appearance.

Gump’s words rang true last week, when disgraced former state Sen. E.B. McClain, D-Midfield, appeared for sentencing in U.S. District Court in Birmingham. McClain was convicted earlier this year on bribery, conspiracy, fraud and money-laundering charges.

He faced up to seventeen-and-a-half years in prison for his role in a scheme which saw McClain receive $300,000 in kickbacks from more than $750,000 in state grants he secured for a friend’s charity. McClain must have felt some relief when Judge Karon Bowdre sentenced him to 70 months in prison instead of seventeen-plus years.

The judge also indicated that McClain would likely be allowed to serve his time, not in a maximum security facility for hardened criminals, but at the minimum security federal prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. Many a wayward politician has served his time at Maxwell, which has jokingly been referred to as a country club prison.

McClain must surrender to federal marshals on June 30. As he and his lawyer left the courthouse last week, McClain said: “Well, I guess I can learn how to play golf now.”

Someone should remind McClain, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.

—Montgomery Independent