Follow up: Cowles plans to look into sick leave program for legislators

A little known perk for state lawmakers is costing taxpayers big bucks. FOX 11 Investigates found that under the state’s sick leave program, legislators can bank their unused sick time and convert it to health insurance.

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

If you add up the sick time benefits for all 132 state legislators, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates it would be worth $2,888,800.

“This is a benefit that really should not be there for elected officials, in my estimation,” said Richard Parins, president of the Brown County Taxpayers Association.

Some politicians, like State Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) and State Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay), have never claimed a single sick day and have each racked up more than $100,000 in potential benefits.

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, Cowles and Ellis backed legislation to get rid of the perk. But two separate bills went nowhere.

When asked why those efforts failed Cowles replied, “I don’t think they wanted to lose the benefit.”

After FOX 11 Investigates started asking questions about the program, Cowles promised to look into it again. He says he will ask the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to research the benefit. But Cowles believes it will be very difficult to get rid of it.”

“People want their benefits. They want things. It’s that simple,” Cowles said.

State Rep. Al Ott (R-Forest Junction) has taken more than 52 hours of sick time. His benefit is worth $86,973.12 he can use for health insurance when he retires.

FOX 11 Investigates asked Ott if it make sense for legislators to be able to accumulate sick leave.

Ott replied, “I think it is important for the legislature to be treated like others are treated. We have families. We have obligations as well.”

Ott is not sure where he would stand on a bill to end the program.

“I’d have to give it some thought,” he said about a possible bill.

“There are so many more things we should be discussing today,” said State Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) when asked about the program.

Hansen has claimed 24 hours of sick leave and has a benefit worth $25,881.44. He would not take a stand on the issue.

When asked if the benefit makes sense for legislators, Hansen replied, “I’d have to see the bill.”

“It’s not in front of us,” he added.

Nothing is likely to change anytime soon. No bills will be introduced until next year at the earliest. Even if a bill is eventually passed to eliminate the benefit, it would only affect future benefits. The sick time lawmakers have already earned isn’t going anywhere.

After our original story aired, Republican Assembly candidate David Steffen vowed to work to end the program if he’s elected

In a statement, Steffen said, “It’s outrageous perks like this sick day scam that breeds cynicism toward elected officials.”

Steffen says the first bill he would introduce in Madison would be a bill to end the perk.

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