Government Spending

How State Legislators Bilk Taxpayers For Pensions

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Note to all those serious folks who mock USA Today as a candy-colored throwaway: Al Neuharth's fever dream regularly produces some of the best reporting on fiscal malfeasance (and more).

To wit, today's top-o-the-page expose on how state legislators pump up their retirements in ways that should get them run out of statehouses on a rail.

It's difficult to summarize, so take a peek at some of these nuggets:

At age 55, South Carolina state Sen. David Thomas began collecting a pension for his legislative service without leaving office.

Most workers must retire from their jobs before getting retirement benefits. But Thomas used a one-sentence law that he and his colleagues passed in 2002 to let legislators receive a taxpayer-funded pension instead of a salary after serving for 30 years….

Texas…lawmakers there haven't raised their pay since 1975. They convene every other year and get a $7,200 annual salary. But because of a law they passed in 1981, their pension is based on whatever the lawmakers decide to pay Texas trial judges.

Since 1981, Texas lawmakers have nearly tripled a judge's salary — and, by extension, their own pensions — raising the pay from $42,500 to $125,000.

Legislators also removed a sentence that limited their pensions to 60% of a judge's salary. Now, the pensions can equal 100% of a judge's salary….

In some states, lawmakers add expenses, per diem allowances and stipends to their base salaries. That inflates the compensation that's used to calculate retirement benefits, which are typically a percentage of final pay. In other states, legislators have written a special definition of salary that applies only to their pensions. Additional tactics include:

•Basing pensions on salaries legislators are not paid or were paid in non-legislative jobs.

•Collecting state pensions while also collecting legislative paychecks.

•Retiring earlier — at a younger age or after fewer years — than other state workers, or with richer benefits.

Kentucky legislators add their annual allowance for stationery — up to $1,500 for senators and $750 for House members — plus another $15,000 to $17,000 a year in expense payments to the salary on which pensions are based. Mississippi legislators get two pensions that on average add up to 165% of their salary. Connecticut lawmakers can increase their pensions up to 50% by including mileage reimbursements that add as much as $15,500 a year to the salaries used to calculate their pensions.

Read the whole maddening account.