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Bill to strip pensions to deter lawbreakers desirable

One bill that didn’t make it into law last year that deserved better was state Sen. Art Lentini’s SB 60 (along with SB 59 although the former was pulled and repackaged as SB 669), which would have denied state pensions to employees convicted of a serious crime. With several allegations and convictions of such crimes among Louisiana public officials this year, the Legislature would be wise to revisit the issue.

There were three main objections to SB 60 last year, which passed committee but was defeated on the Senate floor. One was that families would be punished as well as the miscreant, which prompted some to ask that an “innocent spouse” provision be put into place that would exempt dependents and allow them to receive the pension benefits. However, this could lead to chicanery to avoid the penalty in the form of marriages of convenience. As well, it is unlikely that many minor children would have been affected given that pensions must be drawn later in life.

In addition, we must remember human nature and the theory as to why penalties are escalated on crime – they are to deter. Opponents forget that even human beings that do immoral, calculated things use a process of rationality to decide whether to do it. Thus, any disincentive like this (which can be reinforced by periodic reminders from hiring to retiring assuming, of course, they care about spouse and children) inevitably will reduce the aggregate amount of bad behavior among state employees.

Another was that prosecution might become more difficult, as guilty defendants in this position would have less incentive to plea since there is more at stake to be lost. But if prosecutors do their homework this shouldn’t be an issue and if they don’t, they can go for a lesser charge. Finally, there is the constitutional issue of whether this would represent an unconstitutional taking of property (money vested into the pension system), but if the law allowed rebate with interest to the guilty of personal contributions, that should not be a problem.

Lentini has said he may try again this year although he sees his opportunities as limited as this would be a general purpose bill which are restricted to five in number this odd-numbered-year session (although if he is on the ball he still has a couple of days to pre-file an unlimited number of general purpose bills). If not him, somebody else should for a positive contribution to ethics laws not only to ensure greater confidence in honesty among elected officials, but among any state employees.

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