John Andrist: Are We Paying Too Much for Nothing?

The floor of the North Dakota Senate, January 9, 2017. Photo via Twitter

The total payroll of government — federal, state, school district and city — is enormous. And costly.

But while thinking about the growing practice of public bonus and severance pay packages that are shelled out without official appropriation by those in charge of the purse, I began contemplating the money we spend not to work.

At the top of the list, of course, are social service benefits, disability payments, unemployment benefits, and things like Medicaid, none of which require play for pay.

But there have also been things like the soil bank which paid farmers not to plant. Paid sick leave, paid time off, and vacations are all pay for nothing.

Severance pay is rarely given to ordinary folks. It’s mostly confined to those at the upper end of the payroll — college presidents and administrators.

But the concept of severance pay is expanding down the food chain.

The Minnesota legislature now has a bill under consideration to limit the severance pay their governor can dish out, because of three bonuses Gov. Mark Dayton paid to exiting employees who had worked a limited amount of time.

One woman who had worked only eight months got $17,000.

If the practice becomes any more pervasive it is going to be difficult to keep competent workers. They will quit just for the severance bonus.

Oddly enough the most certain way to get a big severance package is to get fired, particularly if you are a six figure earner.

Four years ago when the legislature wanted to fire a higher education chancellor they appropriated a rewarding departure for him. That was money given not to serve, but to get out of Dodge.

No matter how poorly a college president performs, cutting him loose is certain to require a severance package these days.

Bonuses are similar, if a bit different. Near the end of his tenure North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple used some slush fund to reward some of his top aides with bonuses not directly authorized by the legislature.

Every day when they are in session North Dakota legislators officially excuse their absent colleagues.  Nobody asks if they were sick or golfing, or taking care of personal business, or attending a funeral. Excusing them means they get paid for not attending.

Truthfully, when I was in business I liked the idea of bonus pay for exemplary performance. But I used my own money, and generally shared it with the whole staff, not just those at the top.

A couple congressman found another unique way to get paid not to play last week.

When it came time to decide whether to approve the president’s appointment to Secretary of Education last week, two Senate Democrat committee members skipped school. Call it a paid protest.

Then they were angry because the committee suspended the rules and voted without them.

Every day when they are in session North Dakota legislators officially excuse their absent colleagues.  Nobody asks if they were sick or golfing, or taking care of personal business, or attending a funeral. Excusing them means they get paid for not attending.

There are a great many hard working government workers who deserve every penny they are paid to work. But methinks we overdo some of the money we spend for not working. The reward should be to those working harder.

Thinking a little deeper

I heard an interesting quotation on Public Radio a few days ago: “It’s hard to hate anyone after you know their story.”

It may be over-statement or over-simplification, but at the very least it contains a measure of instructive philosophy worthy of discussion.

Donald Trump promised to shake things up, and he certainly has not disappointed his loyal followers.

Since I’ve not been a supporter my own discipline was to more closely study his “story”.

Likewise, I enjoyed a Time magazine article on Steve Bannon, a controversial Trump confidante, said to be the second most powerful man in America.

If you are not a Time reader you can Google the Drudge report and read it yourself. It’s worth it, and fairly presents his gifts and his warts.

Our new president has had little success in uniting us, which is probably the greatest understatement you’ll read today.

Most interesting, I think, is the way he has been moving at the speed of light. In two short weeks he has made so many moves and statements that his detractors have been unable to keep up with him.

They don’t get him properly condemned before they find another grenade coming at them.

It’s even tougher for today’s large body of professional protesters and protest organizers. They are so busy they are challenged to remember what is the protest of the day.

Under Trump, it is clear to me in this first 14-day ride, that none of our sacred cows are safe.

Like it or not we’ve signed on for four years of it. This man is not a conservative version of Hillary.

Keep your seat belt fastened.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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