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By Dave Umhoefer April 12, 2011

U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy says Wisconsin state employees get far better benefits than members of Congress

Pressed by an underemployed constituent to defend his $174,000 salary, newly elected U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) surprised a town-hall meeting audience with a tale of personal financial woe.

The father of six said a pile of mortgage and student loan debt, the lack of a paycheck when he left his job to campaign full time and the cost of his new government-provided pension and health benefits were causing him to "struggle to meet my bills."

With a few more congressional paychecks under his belt, would his financial crunch ease?

"Maybe," Duffy told the group Feb. 23, 2011 at an Amery senior center, "but at this point I’m not living high on the hog."

Duffy’s comments, after getting an 86 percent pay raise from his state job as an elected district attorney in Ashland County, earned him denunciations from state and national Democrats as out of touch with his northern Wisconsin district. A video of Duffy’s comments surfaced only recently.

Duffy later said his words were "poorly chosen," and his staff says he was just expressing his feelings on the transition from state to federal employee -- not complaining about his pay.

Fair enough. Duffy may indeed by having trouble making ends meet, but that’s not readily checkable.  And we’re not interested in how many miles he’s put on the used minivan he said he drives.

But one comment caught our attention:

"The benefits that were offered to me as a congressman don’t even compare to the benefits that you get as a state employee," said Duffy. "I just experienced that myself. They’re not nearly as good."

He termed the state benefits "gold plated."

Let’s see if Duffy is right about state vs. federal benefits.

Our first stop was Duffy. After all, he’s in the best position to explain his benefits and his finances.

In his town hall remarks, Duffy said he was now paying $600 a month -- 10 times more than the $60 a month he said he paid for his old state health plan. He also talked about retirement income. He said at the town hall session that Wisconsin paid 100 percent of his pension.

Duffy, who left a $93,662-a-year job for the state in mid-2010 to campaign for Congress, declined to tell us which of the various federal health insurance plans he had selected. He also declined to discuss specifics of his other benefits choices.

So we’ll look at the cost of the range of benefits offered to the average state employee with the average federal employee -- as well those offered to elected officials.

The two main areas, of course, are health care and retirement benefits.

Health insurance

Under Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial changes, state employees would start paying more toward their health care. But Duffy left state employment last summer, so we’ll compare the state’s insurance at that point with what federal employees were offered this year.

Looking at it a couple ways, Duffy’s state health insurance was considerably cheaper.

For non-union worker, the monthly premium contribution in 2010 was at one of three levels -- $85, $188 or $448 -- depending on which plan was selected. But the vast majority of non-union state employees were in the $85 tier -- paying about 5 percent of the total premium cost. Duffy said he paid $60 a month; it’s not clear what he was referring to.

At the federal level for 2011, the most popular family plan is $431.60 a month -- which is about one-third of the total cost.

An $85 monthly payment or $431 -- that’s a big difference. And for the employee, less means more in their pocket.

But the range of employee premiums at the federal level is $170 to $693. So there are plans that are much closer to the state prices than the $600-a-month plan Duffy says he selected.

Retirement earnings

Members of Congress kick in 1.3 percent of their pay and the government puts in a bigger amount to help fund their pensions. Regular federal employees contribute 0.8 percent of pay.

So most federal employees are kicking in less than 1 percent.

By contrast, most Wisconsin state workers during Duffy’s state tenure paid 0 percent -- the state picked up the whole contribution.

So that’s a difference, though not a dramatic one.

Looking past the employee’s out of pocket costs, the state kicked in 11.6 percent of a general worker’s pay toward pensions -- almost exactly the same as general federal employees now get.

Duffy’s getting a bigger employer contribution in Congress, though, than he did from the state. It was 13.3 percent at the state and in Congress it’s 17.9 percent, based on the funding needs of their pension plans.

Finally, federal workers get an second bite of the pie: In addition to their traditional pension, they can join the Thrift Savings Plan, a retirement benefit similar to the 401(k) plans available in the private sector.

Under the plan, the federal government makes a contribution to the account equal to 1 percent of the employee’s salary even if workers contribute nothing themselves. Above that, the employee contributions are matched up to 5 percent.

So, with Duffy’s salary of $174,000, his retirement fund would get $1,740 a year even if he chooses not to set aside any funds.

The state of Wisconsin offers no such "defined contribution" plan to employees.

So that’s a plus for federal employees.

Let’s get to the bottom line.

New to office, Duffy was under questioning at the town hall meeting from a builder who now drives a bus for a second job. The man said his wife is a Wisconsin teacher facing benefit cuts.

Duffy said he was struggling financially due to several things, including the cost of federal fringe benefits compared with those offered by his old employer, the State of Wisconsin. He said the federal benefits "don’t even compare" and aren't "nearly as good."

Duffy apparently selected one of the higher-priced health plans, but won’t say which one, so we can’t do an exact comparison. But looking at the plans offered, we found potentially much higher health insurance costs for federal workers, depending on which plan and what level of coverage an employee wants. But we found a far less significant gap -- and some federal advantages -- on retirement benefits.

So, Duffy’s statement is generally accurate but leaves out important details. That puts his statement at Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, remarks at town hall meeting in Amery, Feb. 23, 2011

Interviews with Daniel Son, press secretary for Rep. Sean Duffy, April 5-6, 2011

Email interviews with Brittney Manchester, communications office, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, April 4-6, 2011

Interviews with Art Zimmerman, Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau, April 6-7, 2011

Interview with Pete Sepp, spokesperson, National Taxpayers Union, April 6, 2011

Gisile Goethe, deputy director, education and agency liaison, Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, April 7, 2011

Email interviews with Matthew Stohr, spokesperson, Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, April 5-6, 2011

Congressional Research Service, Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress, January 7, 2011

Legistorm, Members of Congress financial disclosure reports by state, accessed April 5, 2011

Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, state benefits summary, accessed April 7, 2011

Wisconsin Officer of State Employment Relations, state health care premiums, 2011

Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, Summary of Thrift Savings Plan, August 2010

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "House freshman Duffy tells constituents "he’s not living high on the hog" on congressional pay," March 29, 2011

Wausau Daily Herald, "U.S Rep. Sean Duffy says slip potential won’t stop town hall meetings," April 2, 2011

U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Wisconsin specific health plans, accessed April 5, 2011

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