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Should all state employees convicted of crimes be required to return paid leave salaries?

BY DI EDITORIAL STAFF | APRIL 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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YES

On March 20 the Senate Education Committee approved a bill that would require teachers convicted of a felony, aggravated misdemeanor, or serious misdemeanor, to pay back the salary they collected while on paid leave.

Well, it seems that the Senate Education Committee liked the idea so much that just last week, it voted to extend the bill to all public employees. I can’t help but further support this extended measure for several reasons.

First, as taxpayers, we’re typically forced to spend our hard-earned dollars on a lot of things we deem unworthy of our money. I don’t know about the rest of you, but people who commit crimes are probably at the top of my list, regardless of who they are or what position they hold (or held). This isn’t just free money they’re being given on leave; it’s our money.

Second, this bill is based on reasonable grounds, so why should this be limited to just teaching positions? Extending this bill would level the playing field and be the fairest way to go about similar situations. I’m not sure why some people think teachers should be singled out.

In fact, it seems that the people in the highest positions get away with the most. This bill would hopefully put an end to this and ensure those with criminal records on paid leave do not get to prolong their case, reap taxpayer dollars, and then move on from there with money they do not deserve.

Opponents of the measure fear that this bill could seek out anyone. Mary Burke, a UI registered nurse and Service Employees International Union member told The Daily Iowan, “My concern is, where will they be drawing the line? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?” But people on paid leave would go through a fair trial. They would not be expected to pay back their earnings until they were proven guilty.

Furthermore, state Board of Regents President David Miles told the DI Editorial Board earlier this year, “The notion is reasonable. If professors are found guilty, the months they spent living off university dole would be recompensed.”

So regardless of who people are, what job title they held, how long they held it for, and how much they got paid, if they are convicted of a crime, they shouldn’t get to keep money they don’t deserve.

It’s as simple as that.

— Taylor Casey

NO

It’s not that simple.

High-profile investigations (and high pay) of faculty members are easy targets of public ire. Nobody sympathizes with a professor convicted of outré behavior who makes a six-figure salary — and they shouldn’t; it’s fairly easy to repay earnings when one makes well above the poverty line.

But not all public employees are so fiscally well-endowed. For public employees who are barely scraping by, demanding that they repay salary upon being convicted of even a serious misdemeanor could result in financial ruin.

Despite the recent Republican-led crusade against public employees, there are plenty who do not make enough to support a family. One Johnson County school assistant with the Center for Disabilities and Development earned a little under $28,000 in 2010; according to calculations from Pennsylvania State University, the estimated living wage for a two-adult family in Johnson County is $28,904. Adding a child to the family brings the figure up to $47,469; a two-adult, two-child family must make $62,185, before taxes.

It is quite probable, therefore, that there are some public employees who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. For these employees, having to repay several months’ earnings to the state would cause bankruptcy and destitution.

More ruthless citizens than I would see this as a proper punishment for committing crimes. But the bill makes no distinction between serious misdemeanors and felonies; our hypothetical low-wage state worker could be forced into poverty after being convicted of anything from murder to bribing a student athlete. (Other serious misdemeanors include using fire recklessly, running a non-state-sanctioned lottery, and a first-conviction OWI.)

It is held as truth within our judicial system — and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — that a punishment should fit the crime. House File 493’s blanket provisions threaten this core tenet of justice. Unless the bill offers exemptions for employees making under the living wage (based on their family’s needs) or applies only to employees convicted of felonies, it stands to punish public employees unfairly.

Let the state fire its misbehaving workers; there’s no need for disproportional retribution.

— Shay O’Reilly


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