Bad news, good news and mangoes

Friday - 8/31/2012, 2:00am EDT

Senior Correspondent Mike Causey is on vacation. This column originally appeared June 18, 2012.

Don't you hate it when somebody says "I have good news and I have bad news. Which do you want first?" I usually ask for the bad news first because it seems like the manly thing to do. But either way, it can be problematic.

So for federal workers and retirees the situation is:

There is bad news and good news tempered by some not-so-bad, but not-all-that-good news.

The problem, if you work for the federal government these days, is that people don't know whether the news is good or bad, even after they have heard it.

Here's the deal:

  • Nonpostal federal workers have been under a pay freeze for two years, and Congress is making noises like it will extend that freeze for at least another two years. That's the bad news, unless you consider the alternative which could include furloughs and/or layoffs.

  • The Obama administration, which proposed the original two-year (2011 and 2012) pay freeze, says enough is enough, proposing a 0.5 percent hike — but only after Congress passes a budget. Since lawmakers have a deal in place funding the government for the six months of the fiscal year, you won't see that pay raise until at least April. While that's not enough to take the kids to Disney World, or maybe even out to dinner. But it would be a positive step in the right direction. Sort of.

  • Retirees (people who get federal, military or Social Security retirement benefits) went without cost of living adjustments for two years. That's because the cost of living (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) was flat, or actually dropped. But the good news...

  • In April, a slight rise in the CPI indicated that the retirees were on track to get a 1.7 percent COLA next January. Not a king's ransom, not a princely sum, but better than a sharp stick in the eye. But before you break out the sparkling water, some not so good news...

  • In May, the cost of living went down slightly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a sign that the still sluggish economy is, well, still sluggish. Slightly more so in May than in April. And that means that the COLA retirees are looking at now (which was 1.7 percent in April) has dropped to 1.5 percent as of May.
Bad news, good news, followed by not-all-that-bad-but-still-not- so-good news.

There are four months left to go in the retiree COLA countdown. The bad-news-good-news is that if the CPI continues to drop it will be because of lower gasoline prices and reduces prices for key staple items. If it declines enough, retirees could get a much smaller raise, up to and including nothing. (The saving grace is that in times of deflation, retirees benefits are not reduced).

The good news is that if retirees get a substantial increase in January, it will mean that inflation is back, oil prices are again spiking, your vacation (if any) will cost more and half the population of Greece may have moved to Germany.

Meantime, as my old uncle use to say all the time, things could be worse.

If you figure out what that means, please drop me a line.

Meantime, my boss asked me to drop by her office as soon as I finish this. I'm supposed to bring a burlap sack, two mangoes, some smelling salts (??) and a recent issue of the Federal Register. She said she has good news and bad news for me.

What could possibly go wrong?


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

What's the most environmentally friendly meat? It could be buzzing around you. NPR's food blog, The Salt, reports that grasshoppers, crickets and beetles are "four times more efficient at converting grasses into protein-packed meat than cattle," all while generating fewer greenhouse gases.


MORE FROM FEDERAL NEWS RADIO

Sequestration could spell $39B in cuts to civilian agency budgets
Using fiscal 2012 funding as a baseline, the Professional Services Council calculated overall civilian discretionary spending would decline by $39 billion and that individual agency budgets would decline by 7.8 percent.

Integrated health record tests DoD's agile acquisition aspirations
The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs both want to develop a single electronic medical record system that both agencies can use by 2017. But officials say getting there is going to require speedy development and agile acquisition mindset, a big change from the traditional DoD culture for developing big systems.

NARA claims progress against backlog of classified papers
Ninety percent of backlogged papers have been assessed and sent to agencies for review and 42 million pages have been released to the public, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. Despite this apparent success, unexpected problems may cause the government to miss the 2013 deadline to clear the backlog.