All things considered, they’d be better off in Philadelphia

Hawaii may be the closest thing to paradise on U.S. soil, but public employees or officials are having a helluva time trying to go there on the taxpayer’s dime.

Columbus was abuzz the last couple of weeks over plans by two members of the board of the Ohio School Employees Retirement System to attend the National Conference on Public Employee Retirement Systems later this month at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu.

The tab would have been about $11,000, but members of a General Assembly committee that oversees such expenditures made it clear that they would block the trip and might even block other travel through the current session, meaning through 2014. The Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review is made up of five state representatives and five state senators, and eight of those members opposed sending SERS board members to Waikiki, even if they promised to spend all their time learning the fine points of protecting the retirement assets of the bus drivers, school cooks and custodians who belong to SERS. One member of the oversight committee, Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, even suggested that the board members could learn just as much by attending seminars at the Ohio State University.

We’re sure that the folks at SERS feel they’ve gotten a bad rap. SERS has pointed out in the past that it is one of the smallest of the state’s five retirement systems and that it does a conscientious job of investing to provide modest pensions for its members, who are among the lowest paid of the state’s public employees.

And, certainly, SERS would not be alone in being seduced by junkets to exotic locales in the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, last month in Youngstown there was a similar brouhaha over plans by five of Youngstown’s seven board members to attend the National School Boards Association’s annual convention in San Diego. That, too, would have cost more than $11,000.

End of an era

It is a hard and cold fact of life — even if some public officials or employees haven’t yet realized it — that junkets are falling out of favor. This may not be good news for such garden spots as Honolulu, Las Vegas or Orlando, Fla. Or for that matter less tropical but even more expensive convention cities such as New York. If it is necessary to go to a seminar during these tight times, it is better if it can be done on the cheap — and if the destination is somewhere that doesn’t leave the folks back home wondering about whether the attendee is going for the enlightenment or the sunshine.

A generation ago, an area politician who had taken criticism in the past for joining a junket or two was asked whether he’d be going to the next convention. “Well,” he responded, “If it’s in Hawaii, yes, but if it’s in Toledo, well, no.” That politician was confident of his re-electability and times were good. Today, almost no one can afford to be that confident and the public, straining under the economic challenges of the day, is not likely to be amused by such flippancy.

Which raises another point. The Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review certainly won this very public battle. But we’re wondering how many people in Columbus are going to be eagerly watching members of the Legislature and, for that matter, the administration, and what conferences they will be attending — and where. Atlanta, where the National Conference of State Legislatures will be holding its convention this summer is probably safe. But they may want to think twice about where they’ll meet in 2014. Las Vegas would probably be a bad choice; Honolulu, even worse.

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