Our legislators passed a law they contend would outlaw big payoffs to high-ranking public employees who lose their jobs.

Then Western Illinois University decided to oust its president – Jack Thomas – from his executive chair and grease the skids out the door with a mega-bucks buyout. Now our legislators are trying to figure out what happened with their supposed prohibition on “golden parachutes.”

“What a gross misuse of taxpayer-funded dollars. It’s appalling to me,” said state Sen. Laura Murphy, a Democrat from Des Plaines.

Murphy certainly has a point. But what’s really appalling is that our legislators thought they could take on a complicated subject – contract law – and deal with it via legislation that apparently has loopholes big enough to allow a truck to get through.

The state’s ban on buyouts is supposed to limit severance pay to 20 weeks. In the case of Thomas, Western officials and their lawyers came up with an alternative – two years of sabbatical leave worth $570,000 and then a return to a faculty position paying $200,000 a year. It was a price they were willing to pay to avoid a big fight over Thomas stepping down.

They called it a transition, not a separation agreement, and, technically speaking, they’re right.

Thomas isn’t really going, as a buyout would suggest. He’s taking an extended well-paid sabbatical and then returning, if he wishes, to teach at a salary much higher than most of his colleagues make.

If WIU is lucky, Thomas will find a better job elsewhere and not return to the classroom.

But who was kidding whom with that headline-grabbing legislation aimed at protecting taxpayer dollars through a ban on big buyouts.

If legislators are really serious about the issue, they’ll need to revise current law. But it won’t be easy.

For starters, high-powered and high-paid public employees sign multiyear contracts to take important jobs. They insist on financial guarantees, particularly if circumstances go south.

These contracts give them certain rights that allow them to extract compensation in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it’s cheaper to settle disputes with a cash payout than to pay lawyers to litigate.

Perhaps the state can forbid some kinds of financial guarantees that are written into contracts. But, if so, if legislators try to clamp down too hard, they had better be prepared for outstanding candidates for important jobs going elsewhere.

There is, of course, no question that paying big buyouts to failed employees is infuriating. Unfortunately, sometimes it can’t be helped.

The best solution is not to make hiring mistakes on the front end that require buyouts at the back end.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

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