Dave Helling

Why are Kansas and Missouri still paying for elected officials’ public pensions?

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You may have noticed the recent dust-up over a pension for Ron Finley, an incoming Jackson County legislator. Finley’s colleagues decided he should collect his salary as a legislator while still getting a pension for earlier elected service.

Finley gets a pension for his time on the Kansas City Council, too.

Such a triple-dip frustrates many taxpayers and voters. Today, though, let’s consider a better question: Why do elected officials get any public pension at all?

Ron Finley isn’t the only politician cashing in at this particular pay window. Members of Congress can take part in a public retirement system. With just a few exceptions, state legislators and statewide elected officials are eligible for public pensions in Kansas and Missouri.

Kansas City Council members can get a pension, as can Jackson County legislators. And so on.

Public pensions for elected officials are so commonplace that many voters believe they’re required by some unseen force. They are not. And there are good arguments for simply ending public pensions for anyone who gets a job at the ballot box.

Public pensions are massively expensive for taxpayers, for one thing. Kansas City spent roughly $24 million on the city’s regular employee pension fund in 2017 — the fund that pays former council members. That figure is expect to climb.

Eliminating pensions for council members wouldn’t save a lot of money, but it would send an important signal about the problem.

Also, most private businesses have abandoned defined benefit pension plans as too expensive and too inflexible. There’s no reason elected officials should enjoy benefits many private workers don’t.

But there’s a fundamental reason elected officials shouldn’t get a public pension: They’re not really public employees.

Regular government workers — accountants, secretaries, road builders, firefighters — are employees, entitled to whatever pensions they can negotiate. That’s because they perform a task for their employer and must be compensated for it.

Elected officials, on the other hand, are more like a board of directors, performing a task for stakeholders — the people. Elected officials should be outside of regular government, looking over it, not participating in it.

Should they be paid for that? Of course. I’ve long argued most elected officials are underpaid. Council members and state lawmakers should be paid a fair salary, one that attracts quality candidates. That isn’t the case today, particularly in the Missouri or Kansas legislatures.

But giving elected officials a pension and other benefits such as health insurance turns public service into something that resembles a private-sector job, which it should not be.

Kansas City Council members don’t work for City Manager Troy Schulte, as city employees do. State legislators don’t work for Gov. Mike Parson or Gov. Jeff Colyer. Elected officials work for the people, as the people’s representatives, not for City Hall or the statehouse.

They should be paid that way. Pay elected officials enough to buy their own insurance and fund their own retirements. Then step away.

Lawmakers would resist this change, largely because pension payments are relatively hidden, while raises are more visible. Better to defer payments until no one is looking.

That’s a poor excuse. Paying lawmakers for their time in office, and only during their time in office, reinforces an important message: Here, the people are the boss, and elected officials work for us.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.