Should elected county officials be contributing part of their salaries to the Wisconsin Retirement System that eventually will provide them a pension? That is, like most other public employees in the state? That is, to be more specific, like hundreds of thousands of public employees who not only have contributed for many years, but who were forced by Scott Walker's anti-union law to make higher payments to the pension system and for their health insurance.
One Wisconsin court's answer is: yes, elected officials can be made to contribute. But the court's ruling still doesn't level the playing field between elected public officials and the far bigger pool of workers hired into public jobs.
The Eau Claire Leader Telegram reported that, on Tuesday, the Third District Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision from January 2012. The lower court ordered Eau Claire County to repay its elected sheriff and treasurer money they were forced to contribute to the state retirement system. The lower court had ruled county officials violated state law in reducing paychecks to the two officials during their elected terms, in order to make the two start paying pension contributions.
Sheriff Ron Cramer, one of the two officials, complained that 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, the punitive, highly political Scott Walker law that gutted collective bargaining for most local and state public employees, is being interpreted differently depending upon which county is the employer. Cramer argued that sheriffs in other counties aren't paying toward their pensions.
Neither, of course, are a lot of unionized law enforcement officers and firefighters, whom Walker exempted from give-backs and collective bargaining restrictions. Perhaps, aside from the fundamental legal issue and the hit on his own paycheck, it bothers Sheriff Cramer that some of his employees may be getting a better deal than he's getting, at least insofar as pensions are concerned. Then again, most public employees right down to janitors are paying more than ever into the state pension fund, and in many cases they've also had to cope with flat or declining base salaries for years.
Assuming it withstands higher court review, the appeals court ruling would seem to produce slightly more equal treatment between hired public employees and elected ones, except for this: Not only is the case very narrow in scope, the court in making its decision concluded that Eau Claire County did not violate state law on that basis that fringe benefits like pension contributions are excluded from the law, which prohibits any alteration of elected officials' compensation during a term of office. No such distinction is made in state law for hired employees.
So, for the moment, if you're an elected county officeholder, your fringe benefits can be reduced. But if you're a typical, unelected public employee, elected officials can reduce both your pay and your benefits, because thanks to Walkerism you no longer have any meaningful legal protections. Like -- ahem! -- elected officials still enjoy. Nevertheless, some among those elected officials think they're the ones getting the raw deal.