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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 9:56 pm | Fair 46º


Harris Sherline: ‘Public Service’ Is Not About Service

We, the American taxpayers, end up paying the tab for those who craft their careers on the government's payroll

Why are politicians and government employees so often referred to as being in “public service,” as if they are making some great sacrifice to work for the government?

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

We live in the era of the professional politician. “Public service” has become a career choice, and one that pays far better than most politicians could earn on their own, along with benefits and retirement plans that generally exceed anything the average taxpayer in the private sector receives.

From my perspective, what I see in politics are people who, for the most part, make a career of being on a government payroll while the rest of the population pays the tab. They often talk about the financial and career sacrifices they make, yet the combination of their compensation and benefits are often better than those in business and industry, without being subjected to comparable market risks.

In fact, most politicians probably could not earn a better living in another field. Yet, they persist in giving themselves raises, or establishing systems that make their raises automatic, without having to declare themselves by voting on their own pay increases.

As far as I’m concerned, this is absolute nonsense. Perhaps the most offensive aspect is that their compensation is not in any way related to performance. They get paid the same no matter how well or how poorly they manage the “people’s business” that they so often talk about.

In May 1999, Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, stated in House testimony that a 1996 Roll Call study found that “all but six of the 73 newly elected House members will receive large pay hikes when they take office, compared with their previous employment ... During the last 13 years, congressional salaries grew by $42,900 — more than $15,000 above inflation.”

Based on Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, in 2006 the average annual earnings of four professions: teachers, software engineers, accountants and doctors, make the case very clearly: Estimated average annual compensation for elementary school teachers was $48,700 a year; for software engineers, it was $82,000; for accountants and auditors, $60,700; and for doctors, it was $142,200.

Contrasting these income figures with the current $174,000 annual compensation of rank-and-file members of the House and Senate, it’s clear that, by any standard, most politicians receive a pay raise when they are elected to Congress, even compared with some of the higher paying professions.

Most Californians are not aware that their legislators currently earn more than $145,000 a year, while the average annual per capita income of the state’s residents is only about $39,000. People’s Advocate Inc. has reported that “California legislators are now the highest paid state officials in America!” Our “public servants” in California receive an annual salary of $116,208 plus a tax free “per diem” allowance of $100 a day (about $30,000 a year), an annual allowance of $5,400 toward a state-leased automobile, plus insurance, along with other perks. In addition, they are allowed to earn outside income over and above their pay as legislators — as lawyers, doctors, accountants, insurance brokers, whatever.

Contrast the foregoing numbers with other states, such as Alabama, which pays its legislators only $10 a day, or North Carolina at $13,951 a year, or South Dakota at $12,000 for two sessions, Texas at $7,200 or Nebraska’s $12,000 annual compensation.

Furthermore, government employees, at least in California, have established a seemingly foolproof system of guaranteeing regular increases in their salaries and benefits, by surveying their counterparts in other governmental entities, i.e., municipal, county, etc., then adjusting their own employee compensation programs accordingly. The other cities and counties do the same, and the process goes on continuously, constantly surveying and comparing themselves to other governmental entities and granting increases based on the results, which then become the basis for the other agencies to approve their own increases, in a never-ending cycle of increasing compensation.

Life in the public sector is not necessarily always easy, it’s just not as underpaid as it is so often made out to be, and “public service” has really become just another a career path in itself.

Perhaps Mark Twain said it best when he observed, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly Native American criminal class except Congress.”

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog, Opinionfest.com.

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