Herman: The story of lawmakers’ pensions, or those who help themselves

They might not have done everything you wanted done to help you, but Texas lawmakers this year did do a little something to help themselves. Their already lucrative — and somewhat bizarre — pension plan is about to get a bit more lucrative.

I’m not sure it can get any more bizarre.

And raise your hand if you voted yourself a pension hike this year.

Quick review: The legislative pension system, established by legislators, is based on the salary of state district judges, also set by legislators. For every year of service, retired legislators (they qualify at age 50 if they served 12 years and at age 60 if they served eight) get 2.3 percent of the state district judge salary, which has been $125,000 since 2005.

Lawmakers have been shy about raising judges’ paychecks because of negative political feedback about also raising their own pensions. They overcame that shyness this year, approving $140,000 judicial salaries in the 2014-15 state budget now awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s approval.

That pay hike means a pension hike for current and future retired lawmakers. Keep in mind that we pay our part-time lawmakers $7,200 a year plus expenses. That means the retirement pay can be a lot higher than the on-the-job pay.

There were several efforts this year to decouple judicial salaries from the legislative pension plan so that a judicial pay hike wouldn’t mean a pension boost. Those efforts failed.

Last week, state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, took one last stab at it. His plan, offered as an amendment on another bill, would have linked legislative pensions to the governor’s salary. The way Isaac had it jiggered, this would have meant judicial pay hikes this year with no pension increase for lawmakers.

Isaac failed twice with his plan. The second time, there were 32 votes for it and 101 against. And there was verbal, as well as numerical, scorn.

“If there is a representative on this floor who does not believe they are working and doing an excellent job (and) that is deserving of pension and retirement, they should voluntarily opt out rather than trying to put this on everybody,” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said during the debate, drawing applause. (Remember, Isaac wasn’t trying to kill the pension plan, just keep it at the current level.)

If Perry approves the new budget and the judicial pay raise sticks, Turner, with 26 years of legislative service, could get about $9,000 more a year in pension benefits, bringing it to about $84,000, when he retires. Actual amounts depend on decisions lawmakers make about their plans.

State Rep. Doug Miller, R-New Braunfels, told colleagues the legislative retirement system’s vesting process is standard for the industry. I don’t doubt that. But is it industry standard to get a pension based on a salary (that you set) that’s about 20 times your own salary?

My actuarial skills are limited, but I think I can recommend you accept such an offer should it come your way.

Miller properly noted that a minority of folks elected to the Legislature ever qualify for the pension. “Let me tell you,” he said during the debate, “we’re talking about nothing here.”

Depends, I guess, on your definition of nothing. For current longtime lawmakers, the pending increase amounts to something more than nothing. State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has 46 years in the House. That means he’s maxed out on pension benefits because legislative retirees can’t get more than 100 percent of a district judge’s salary. But the pending increase in that salary means Craddick’s eventual retirement benefit could increase by $15,000 a year.

We have 28 legislators with at least 20 years of service. The judicial pay hike could mean annual retirement benefit increases of at least $6,900 for each of those.

Isaac, who says he won’t opt out of the pension plan though he wants it changed, told me he’s not done trying to revise it to erase what he sees as “perception from our constituents that we are self-serving.”

I told him to let me know if he ever succeeds. I like writing about miracles, I told him.

“I like to reach out for them every now and then,” he replied.

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