Georgia lawmakers may face a vote on their own pensions

BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

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BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Georgia lawmakers head into the final two days of the 2018 session facing votes on hundreds of bills, but one of the most controversial deals with their own pensions.

The Georgia House and the state Senate Retirement Committee have approved versions of House Bill 624, which could nearly double the pensions of some lawmakers. It would likely more than triple House Speaker David Ralston's pension.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get throug the Senate by the end of Thursday, the last day of the session. With lawmakers facing re-election, and with both the Senate’s president and a Republican senator running for governor, it could face some strong opposition.

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Zell Miller, a former two-term Georgia governor and U.S. senator, has died at the age of 86, his family said Friday, March 23 in a statement. According to his family, Miller passed away peacefully surrounded by his loved ones following treatment for Parkinson's Disease. Miller served as the 79th Governor of Georgia from 1991-1999 and went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 2000-2005. During his time as governor, Miller created Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, which helps 1.8 million students attend college

But the Senate Rules Committee on Monday included it among the bills to be considered in the final days of the session, and the idea has some fans in the chamber.

"I think pensions need to be addressed," said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. "Lawmakers are very poorly compensated. The responsible ones are working year-round; your shingle is always out for your constituents.

“I think the compensation for legislators needs to be addressed. It’s overdue, and the pension is included in it. The pension (lawmakers receive) is like something a cotton-mill worker or something would get.”

Orrock stressed that she also supports higher pay and pensions for teachers and state employees.

However, only a few hours earlier, the state Senate had approved a budget for the upcoming year that disagreed with a proposal by the state House to recommend a bonus of up to $900 for state government retirees, who haven’t had cost-of-living pension increases in several years. The Employees Retirement System’s board ultimately makes that decision, but it takes its cue from the General Assembly.

Some lawmakers say it may come as a surprise to Georgians that members of the House and Senate are even eligible for a pension.

The relatively tiny Legislative Retirement System is part of the state’s much larger ERS, which provides pensions for state employees.

Unlike the funds for state employees and teachers, the Legislative Retirement System has long had more than enough in assets to make sure all retired lawmakers receive what they are promised.

At the end of fiscal 2017, the employees fund had 76 percent of the money needed to pay its future liabilities — payments to retirees — and the teachers fund about 79 percent. The system for lawmakers had 127 percent of what was needed.

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.

The benefits are fairly small because being a member of the General Assembly is considered a part-time job.

Lawmakers vest 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.

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.

Under HB 624, sponsored by House Retirement Chairman Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, lawmakers would be eligible to receive 38 percent of their highest salary or $50 per month per year of service as a pension. It would increase the contribution of lawmakers to at least help pay for the higher pension.

The Senate committee made some changes to the bill, but its version is similar.

Most state lawmakers are paid $17,342 a year, plus $173 per day they are in session or doing committee work.

Currently, a lawmaker like Battles, who is retiring at the end of this year after eight years, would be eligible for a pension of about $3,400 a year. Under Battles’ House bill, that pension would increase to about $6,600 a year.

Battles never signed up for the pension, so he wouldn’t benefit from the bill if it passes.

Ralston — or any House speaker — would be the biggest beneficiary.The speaker is paid $99,000 a year.

Ralston is running for re-election, but if he didn’t return next year, his pension would be worth about $9,500 annually because it would be calculated the same way as any other legislator — based on years of service.

Under Battles’ bill, the pension would rise to more than $35,000 a year — depending on the version that passes — because it would be based on a percentage of his salary.

Not everybody in the House backed the proposal.

"I couldn't get comfortable voting myself a future benefit," said state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire.

But many lawmakers have for years complained about the cost of serving. Ralston has said the low pay for a job that can take up a lot of time outside of the 40-day legislative session forces many lawmakers to quit the General Assembly to earn a decent living.

Late last year, a commission recommended giving lawmakers $12,000 raises — to just under $30,000 a year — and bumping the speaker's pay from $99,000 to $135,000.

The panel also recommended the speaker be allowed to receive a pension from the Employee Retirement System. The Senate’s president, the lieutenant governor, is already eligible to be part of the system.

Ralston acknowledged at the time the report was released that pay raise proposals were an easy political target, making them tough to get passed. The same could be true for a pension hike.

“It’s an easy thing to take potshots at,” he said. “These are really full-time jobs. When I walk into an Ingles supermarket in Blue Ridge in July and a guy comes up and wants to ask me a question about an issue or wants my help on something very legitimate, I can’t tell him, ‘We’re out of session, I am off the clock.’

“It’s a year-round job, and it’s a very demanding job. A lot of good people are having to leave.”