Leading members of both parties at the Statehouse urged state Rep. Jason Spencer to resign after he exposed himself and yelled racial slurs on TV, but he may have financial reasons for not giving in to his colleagues’ pressure.
Spencer lost his bid for re-election in the May Republican primary, which means his term ends when the new General Assembly convenes in January. If he stays in office through then, he will have eight years of service, which is a magic number for members of the General Assembly.
After eight years, members of the General Assembly and their family are eligible for taxpayer-subsidized health insurance for life, state officials say.
It also enables lawmakers to receive a full legislative pension when they reach retirement age, which isn’t all that much at $36 per month for each year served. Lawmakers debated increasing the pension during the 2018 session, but the legislation died in the Senate after passing the House.
Not all lawmakers sign up for the pension and health plans, and state officials don’t disclose information about individual beneficiaries.
State lawmakers are paid $17,342 a year for what is considered a part-time job and an additional $173 for each committee day, so resigning now would cost Spencer more than $7,000 in salary through the end of the year.
House Speaker David Ralston urged Spencer to resign shortly after the episode of Showtime’s “Who is America?” aired Sunday, and he was soon echoed by leaders and rank-and-file members from both sides of the aisle.
Spencer apologized for the “ridiculously ugly episode,” but he refused to step down.
The episode shows Sacha Baron Cohen, who portrayed himself as an Israeli military expert, at a gym persuading Spencer to take part in what he was told was a counterterrorism video.
Cohen gets Spencer to yell racial epithets, make offensive remarks about Chinese tourists and pull down his pants and shimmy his naked buttocks toward purported attackers while yelling “USA” and “America.” He was told these tactics ward off homophobic militants.
Legislative lifetime eligibility for State Health Benefit Plan membership — the insurance plan for teachers, state employees and retirees and their families — has been a sore subject in the past.
In 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal said it was fair to cut health insurance subsidies to school bus drivers because the state didn’t offer the benefits to other part-time workers. However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that the state spent about $1.2 million a year subsidizing the health insurance of part-time lawmakers, former legislators and their families. Even some former lawmakers who lobby their former colleagues during legislative sessions are on the plan.
Spencer has been one of the staunchest critics in the General Assembly of the Affordable Care Act and efforts to use it to provide health coverage to more working but low-income Georgians by expanding Medicaid. Deal, Spencer and others have said it would be too costly to expand Medicaid, the public health care program for the poor.
Former state Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, a Savannah Republican, suggested the General Assembly act to oust Spencer to keep him from receiving state benefits. Johnson called Spencer “an embarrassment to our state.”
He tweeted, “Governor Deal should call a special session so the House can eject him and prevent him from getting healthcare paid for by the rest of us. “
This wouldn’t be the first time a state politician tried to tack on time to get a better pension or health benefits.
After state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko lost her bid for governor in 2002, she was desperate to find a few weeks of work after her term expired to get in enough time to receive a full 30-year teacher pension. She hoped the man who beat her in the Republican primary, then-newly elected Gov. Sonny Perdue, would find work for her.
She told a newspaper reporter she was willing to “direct traffic,” work as a secretary or clean state buildings to get in the extra 12 days she needed.
In 2006, she wound up heading to prison after pleading guilty to defrauding the federal government and money laundering. The federal government garnished her pension as part of her restitution deal.
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