Now and then, I happen across a program in state government that makes me wonder, what on earth were they thinking?

And, usually, the answer is: They were thinking about politics.

And that’s probably the best explanation of why politicians in Raleigh have made such lavish promises to provide health insurance benefits to state employees after they ‘retire’ – without setting aside a penny to pay for those promises.

Now, when I say retire most people will think of someone who retires at 65 and signs up for Medicare.

But that’s not the case here.

A state employee can work 20 years and retire and the state will go right on paying for their health insurance. For years.

The state will even continue to pay for their health insurance if they take a job with another employer.

My friends in the private sector, who have reached 65, tell me hitting the age of Medicare is like walking into the Promised Land. Not only are basic Medicare benefits well beyond what they had been paying for with their own insurance – they’re free. And, if they want, they can buy additional benefits (say, to pay for all their prescription drugs) for a fraction of the cost.

A state employee who goes on Medicare at 65 gets an even better deal: The state will provide whatever supplements or additional coverages they want and it doesn’t cost them a penny. They get Medicare free. And additional coverages free too.

Which leads to an inevitable question: How much are all these promises going to cost taxpayers? The answer: $26 billion. Which is what state budget writers are euphemistically calling an ‘unfunded liability.’ And what the rest of us simply call a debt.

Let’s put that $26 billion in perspective: I remember the debate, two years ago, when we found ourselves facing an inherited $2.5 billion debt to the federal government for unemployment insurance.

Now we face another debt that is ten times as big.

No one questions taxpayers providing health insurance to people who work for the state – but spending $26 billion to provide health insurance to people who don’t work for the state? It’s time for a serious talk.

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