According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this is what I should be outraged over-
State lawmakers accrue sick leave like regular state employees but don't have to claim it when they miss work, setting them up to cash in on a perk that for one lawmaker has surpassed $160,000.
In the past four years, only two lawmakers have claimed sick time.
The others took no leave for illness, though some of them missed legislative hearings and votes on bills because they were sick, the Journal Sentinel found. When lawmakers can't make it on days they are in session, leaders grant leave without question, but no one is forced to take a sick day for absences.
Like regular state employees, lawmakers can use unused sick leave when they retire to pay premiums on health insurance offered by the state. If all sitting lawmakers retired now, they would reap $3.2 million in health insurance funded by taxpayers.
"It's inexcusable for someone not to claim sick leave if they're not there for a (legislative) session day, particularly when they've said they're sick," said Jay Heck, executive director of government watchdog Common Cause in Wisconsin. "It's one of those things that makes people very suspicious of legislators."
The Journal Sentinel's findings come about a month after lawmakers heaped ire on the University of Wisconsin System when a legislative audit showed that almost 80% of professors last year claimed no sick leave.
Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee) drafted a bill in 2003 to end the perk, but no other lawmaker would sign on to it, he said. He opted not to introduce the bill after his colleagues bristled at the idea.
Lawmakers gave him "a very bipartisan, jaw-dropping stare" when he suggested it, Wasserman said.
"I think it's a perk the average citizen in this country doesn't get, and it should end. . . . Sick leave is for when you're sick," he said.
The lawmaker set to get the biggest benefit is Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), who qualifies for more than $160,000 that he can put toward buying health insurance when he leaves state service. He has been in the Legislature for 50 years and come January will be the longest-serving state legislator in the country.
In total, 22 lawmakers qualify for more than $50,000 each in sick leave benefits, state records show. All of their benefits will continue to climb until they leave office.
The longest-serving legislators benefit from a bonus program available to all employees. Those who work 15 years or longer are awarded extra hours that can be used to buy health insurance.
The bonus hours more than doubled the benefit for Risser and Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah).
The Journal Sentinel received the sick leave balances for all lawmakers under the state's open records law. The newspaper then calculated the bonus hours available to long-serving legislators and converted the hours for all legislators into dollar values by using state formulas.
Risser was out of state on legislative business last week and did not return phone calls. Ellis said that he did not think he had ever claimed a sick day in 36 years in office and that he was unaware of the benefit. Ellis' benefit is about $104,000.
"I did not know any of this," he said. "I've never paid any attention. It seems to me that doesn't seem right. It seems to me, if you don't use it, you should lose it."
It is difficult to be outraged over a benefit that no lawmakers seems to know about.
Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) said she didn't make it to the Capitol for about three months in early 2005 after her pelvis was shattered in a car accident. She said she didn't take sick leave for the absence because she was unaware of the program until the Journal Sentinel asked about sick leave under the state's open records law.
It is even more difficult to be outraged over a benefit that no lawmaker to date seems to have cashed in on. There is no evidence that anyone has ever made a claim to this benefit.
The solution to this problem seems to be rather simple. If a legislator calls in sick, then they have to use a sick day, period.