Under legislation that a Georgia House committee approved Tuesday, the annual pension for a House speaker, such as David Ralston, would increase to about $37,600. That’s about the average pension for a retired teacher in Georgia. (REANN HUBER)

Amid cuts, House panel backs higher pensions for Georgia lawmakers

At a time when lawmakers are considering sizable state budget cuts, Georgia House members are moving to increase the pensions of legislators, with Speaker David Ralston potentially the biggest beneficiary.

If approved, the bill could at least triple the pension of a House speaker.

The House Retirement Committee backed a bill Tuesday that it has approved in the past to raise what for most lawmakers are relatively small retirement payments.

Under House Bill 67, sponsored by Retirement Chairman Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, lawmakers would be eligible to receive 38% of their highest salary or $50 per month per year of service as a pension, whichever is higher. It would also increase the contribution lawmakers make into the system to help pay for the higher pension.

At $50 per month, per year, a lawmaker serving 20 years would receive $1,000 a month as his or her pension.

Using the 38% rule in the bill, the annual pension for a House speaker would be about $37,600. That’s about the average pension for a retired teacher in Georgia.

Benton said the 38% rule would likely most help those in legislative leadership positions, which pay more than what the average state lawmaker makes.

Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, a member of the committee, said the optics were poor considering that the House is holding budget hearings this week on Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposal to cut $200 million in spending from state agencies this fiscal year and $300 million next year. In some cases, employees have been laid off, but many of the cuts involve eliminating or not filling vacant positions.

Wilkerson voted against the measure.

“At a time of budget cuts, I don’t think it sends the right message that legislators are giving themselves an increase in their retirement benefit,” Wilkerson said. “I’d say bring it back next year when we have a better budget situation and we can discuss it then.”

The House in 2018 passed similar proposal, but the measure stalled in the Senate after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on it.

State lawmakers haven’t seen much in the way of a pay raise in at least a decade.

Still, state lawmakers have long been leery about raising their pay or pensions. Some note that they know what the part-time job pays — most earn $17,324 a year — when they run for a seat in the House or Senate. Raising the pay or pension of lawmakers also isn’t something legislators want on their political resume come election time.

But many also say the job is no longer a part-time gig, and that higher pay and benefits could make it easier to attract good candidates to run for the General Assembly. Some committee chairmen, like those with a role in producing the state budget, can often put in long hours outside of the session.

Besides the salary, lawmakers also receive $173 for each day they are in session or doing committee work.

Unlike other part-time state employees, lawmakers and retired legislators also receive state-subsidized health insurance through the State Health Benefit Plan, which covers more than 650,000 Georgia teachers, employees, retirees and their dependents.

A compensation committee in 2017 recommended rank-and-file lawmakers receive raises to $29,908, and that the speaker’s salary go from about $99,000 a year to $135,000. Ralston, like many legislators, has a nonsession job. He is a lawyer, and the AJC and Channel 2 Action News last year reported numerous occasions where he had made claims of legislative business to put off cases.

Currently, lawmakers vest into the pension system after eight years of service, and they receive $36 a month for every year they are in the House and/or Senate. So, for instance, a lawmaker who has served 20 years would be eligible for a $720-a-month pension when he or she reaches retirement age.

The legislative system, like those for other employees, is funded partially by payroll deductions and partially by the state, which kicks in about $600,000 a year.

Jim Potvin, the executive director of the Employees Retirement System, which oversees the pension program for legislators, has said the pension benefit for lawmakers hasn’t changed since at least 2004.

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