Senate Passes Government Benefit Giveaway In Last-Minute Amendment

Through 2016, any long-time V.I. Government employee will be able to take two years off work, with the government paying full health insurance and pension contributions for the jobs that are not being performed, if an amendment the Senate approved without debate Thursday becomes law.

Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen proposed the measure as an amendment to the last bill being considered Thursday – a bill from Sen. Craig Barshinger that changes the way the time for retired government employees collecting their pensions is calculated when they return to government jobs after retirement.

Currently they are allowed to work 75 days, but the bill changes that to 600 hours, which equals eight hours a day times 75 days, to give departments and the retirees greater flexibility. Another amendment limited these provisions to a two-year span of time. The underlying bill was vetted in committee and was unopposed by the V.I. Division of Personnel.

Hansen’s amendment has no relation to the subject of the bill, which is how many hours retirees may work while receiving their pensions. It makes the terms of an emergency budget act passed in 2011 more generous and obligates the government to pay health insurance and pension contributions for people who are not actually working for the government.

Act 7261, signed into law in July 2011, enacted government pay cuts, retirement incentives and other emergency budget items aimed at reducing the need for layoffs during a budget crisis. (See related links below)

It stipulated that any employee who has accumulated five or more years of government service may take up to two years, but not less than one year of voluntary leave without pay “for any purpose whatsoever without losing seniority and shall have the right to return to his employment.”

The law – passed as a temporary, emergency measure – created an incentive for employees to take a leave of absence in order to reduce involuntary layoffs due to budget constraints. To that end, the 2011 law required employees taking advantage of this benefit giveaway to “return to work on or before October 1, 2013.”

Hansen’s amendment extends this automatic two-year leave with government-paid benefits until Oct. 1, 2016, creating an obligation for the government to pay an unknown amount in employer and employee health and pension contributions for employees who are not actually performing any work.

Along with holding nonworking employees’ jobs and seniority for up to two years, it requires the government to pay not just the employer contribution for health insurance and retirement pensions, but also the employees’ own contributions.

Sen. Craig Barshinger initially objected to the amendment, saying he did not “think this is germane to the bill before us, which is very narrow.”

Hansen responded that “government services means anything government,” and so any measure that relates to government is germane to any bill that relates to government in any way.

The amendment refers to itself as “a housekeeping measure.” Legislatively, a housekeeping measure is a term for a technical change or technical amendment that has no substantive effect, such as costing money or changing the meaning of the law. Changing punctuation and correcting grammar are examples of housekeeping measures.

“I would hate to vote yes to change something on a bill that has been thoroughly vetted like this and add something new to the law,” Barshinger said. “I would like to ask legal counsel if this is truly a housekeeping measure, as stated in the amendment, or if it is really a larger issue,” Barshinger said.

“This is, in fact, a housekeeping measure,” legislative legal counsel Augustin Ayala said when asked for his professional opinion as an attorney. Ayala did not elaborate or explain his legal reasoning for concluding the measure was merely housekeeping and had no substantive effect.

Barshinger withdrew his objection to Hansen’s amendment, citing Ayala’s legal conclusion.

The Senate approved Hansen’s giveaway amendment without objection, and the Senate approved the bill as amended, 14 to 0, with Sen. Donald Cole absent.

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