FOX 11 Investigates: Sick time for state legislators

The state could spend millions of your tax dollars to pay for a perk for state lawmakers that has virtually no oversight.

Some state lawmakers, who have been in office for 20, 30 even 40 years, have never taken a sick day. As a result, they’ve accumulated benefits worth tens of thousands of your tax dollars that can be used to buy health insurance after they retire.

“That’s just outrageous,” said Richard Parins, president of the Brown County Taxpayers Association.

When asked if he is surprised to hear that some legislators haven’t taken a sick day in 30 or 40 years, Parins replied, “That’s an awfully healthy person.”

The program started in the early 1970s. Lawmakers, like other state employees, can bank the sick days they don’t use. When they retire, they can convert those unused sick days to health insurance. The big difference for lawmakers? No one is monitoring how or if they use their sick time.

Lawmakers self-report their sick time to the clerk’s office and to human resources, but there is no approval or review process.

Some lawmakers have massive benefits waiting for them once they retire.

Legislators’ Sick Leave
Legislator Sick Leave Balance Sick Leave Usage Current Value
Rep. Garey Bies 0 0 $0
(R-Sister Bay)
Rep. Al Ott 2076 52.5 $86,973.12
(R-Forest Junction)
Rep. Dean Kaufert 1817 4 $72,070.96
(R-Neenah)
Sen. Rob Cowles 2363 0 $103,788.88
(R-Allouez)
Sen. Mike Ellis 2903 0 $136,607.12
(R-Neenah)
Sen. Luther Olsen 1552 0 $60,756.80
(R-Ripon)
Sen. Dave Hansen 1082 24 $25,881.44
(D-Green Bay)
Sen. Joe Leibham 1281 0 $49,299.12
(R-Sheboygan)
Source: Assembly and Senate Clerks

FOX 11 Investigates requested sick leave information for state lawmakers from Northeast Wisconsin who have been in office for at least the last 10 years.

State Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) was elected to the Legislature in 1970 and has never taken a sick day. Under the state’s sick leave program, Ellis has earned $136,607.12 he can use to buy health insurance.

There’s nothing that says the lawmakers have to spend the money. But it is set aside for them to use if they choose to use it.

In 2007, Ellis co-sponsored legislation to end the perk.

So what does Ellis think about the program now, after he announced that he’s not seeking re-election? FOX 11 Investigates wanted to know whether Ellis plans on using any of his benefit. While he is usually not too shy about talking with the media, he would not speak with FOX 11 Investigates for this story. His office said he was out of town and unavailable for any interviews.

Ellis’ colleague, State Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), did speak with FOX 11 Investigates.

“When I first heard about this several years ago I was sort of shocked that it even existed,” Cowles said.

Cowles, who was elected in 1982, has also never called in sick. He has a benefit worth $103,788.88 that he can use for health insurance when he retires.

“I’ve always felt we’re on salary and we’re supposed to be there and there’s been times I’ve been ill and I’ve just gutted it out quite frankly,” Cowles said. “There have been a few times I probably should’ve been in bed but I went through with it anyhow.”

Cowles has also tried to get rid of the benefit in the past. He co-sponsored two bills in 2007 that would have eliminated the program for legislators. Those bills went nowhere.

When asked if the benefit makes sense, Cowles replied, “My gut feeling is it’s too much.”

Cowles says he’s never thought about using the benefit when he leaves office.

Parins says he understands why regular state workers get sick leave, but not politicians, who set their own schedule and report their own sick time.

“I think the general public, when they see these numbers, the hair on their necks going to stand up and go, why do they get this at all? Why should they be allowed to accumulate such a large amount of money,” Parins said.

According to a memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau back in 2011, the unused sick time for state lawmakers was valued at $2,888,800. That’s an average of $21,900 for every member of the Legislature.

Each year, the state sets aside $79,100, or about $600 per lawmaker, to fund for the program.

The state does not have any current data about how often the benefit is used.

“There’s no doubt. It’s a perk,” said State Rep. Dean Kaufert (R-Neenah). He has taken four hours of sick time during his 24 years in the Assembly. He’s leaving Madison to serve as the mayor of Neenah.

Kaufert’s $72,070.96 benefit will be transferred into an account until he retires.

“I may or may not utilize those dollars. We’ll just have to wait and see,” Kaufert said. He added that the program should be reviewed.

The last time the Legislature looked in this issue was 2007. And, as we said, it went nowhere.

But after we started asking questions, some lawmakers told us they would consider taking another look at it. In fact, Cowles says he plans to have the legislative fiscal bureau research the benefit and see how it compares to other states and to the private sector.

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