Two-year college system no place for state legislators

Published 10:47 pm Tuesday, August 11, 2009

State lawmakers caught heat, and rightfully so, when The News reported some of them had multiple hands in taxpayers’ till.

Many Alabamians were outraged to learn some of the lawmakers had used their elected office to finagle a state job for themselves in the two-year college system, and that some of those jobs didn’t involve, shall we say, actual work.

Now, to be fair, not all of the situations were equally egregious. Some lawmakers had college jobs that predated their election. Some had legitimate jobs and were diligent about doing them.

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But even they couldn’t overcome the fundamental problems that accompany double-dipping. A college employee who serves in the Legislature is often away from work, for one thing. For another, he is a management problem: Who’s going to tell someone with a vote on the budget he’s not carrying his weight around campus or that his performance is not up to snuff?

Fortunately, when attention focused on double-dipping, the state Board of Education attempted a remedy, at least as far as the two-year college system went. It approved policies that tightened the reins on leave time and, as of 2010, will ban the college system’s employment of lawmakers. Period.

The ban on legislative hiring is still the subject of a legal challenge, which it may or may not survive. But between the policy and the unflattering press, a number of lawmakers already have dropped off two-year college payrolls.

At least that many retired or resigned from college jobs or, in one case, from the Legislature in the wake of the flap over double-dipping. Some didn’t even wait for the school board’s ban.

Another, Sue Schmitz, was convicted of fraud in connection with her bogus two-year college job and was removed from her legislative post. She’s not double-dipping any more; she’s looking at 2½ years in prison.

We consider it progress to see the dwindling ranks of lawmakers doubling as two-year college employees. But as long as any lawmakers remain on campus payrolls, the potential for problems will remain.

All seven told The Times they plan to run for re-election in 2010. While Alabama Education Association chief Paul Hubbert isn’t expecting their two-year college employment to be an issue — his organization’s polling operation has found it’s not a big concern among voters — we’re hoping Hubbert is wrong.

Voters should be very concerned about paying 1) a college employee who can’t provide his full attention to the job and 2) a state lawmaker whose independence is in question.

Remember, the reason the lawmakers ended up on college payrolls in the first place was not just because they liked the paycheck. It was because two-year college campuses liked having lawmakers beholden to them.

The resulting system served the interests of selected lawmakers and colleges, but it did not serve the interests of regular Alabamians. Taxpayers weren’t getting their money’s worth from these lawmakers on campus or in the capital.

If those still holding on to legislative seats and two-year college jobs can’t bring themselves to make a choice between them, we hope voters will make that choice unnecessary.

—The Birmingham News