The Georgia House backed legislation Tuesday to increase the pensions of part-time lawmakers up to 38% and quadruple what House Speaker David Ralston could receive.
The bill now heads to the Georgia Senate for its consideration.
The measure - which passed 151-17 -would boost the formula for lawmaker pensions from $36 a month per year they serve in the General Assembly to $50.
House Bill 824 by Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything right now because the legislative retirement system is overfunded and has been for years.
“It doesn’t cost the state a penny.” Cantrell told colleagues Tuesday. “It’s a very modest proposal, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
The biggest increase would come for the presiding officer — currently Ralston. A speaker would receive $250 a month per year he or she serves in that position.
In Ralston’s case, he served 13 years in the Legislature before becoming speaker in 2010. So, if the bill passes, for example, he’d receive credit for 13 years based on the regular legislative pension and 13 as speaker, giving him a total package just short of $47,000 a year.
Under the current system, the Blue Ridge Republican would receive about $11,000 a year as a pension. Ralston is running for reelection unopposed this year.
State pensions in Georgia have traditionally been seen as an incentive to attract teachers and state workers to jobs that don’t necessarily promise big salaries. Lawmakers, likewise, have been trying to find ways to make a part-time job that pays $17,342 a year attractive to a wider group of Georgians.
Legislators have long said that the low pay makes it harder to attract people who can’t take three months off a year from their jobs to serve during legislative sessions.
Many legislators 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, such as those with a role in producing the state budget, often put in long hours outside of the session.
The speaker’s job is different — it is paid as if the person holding it is a full-time employee. Ralston is currently paid about $99,000 a year, and he would see his salary boosted to $104,000 under the budget the Georgia Senate gave final approval to last week.
Ralston is a lawyer when the General Assembly is not in session.
Part of the reason lawmakers can look at raising their pensions is that the Legislature Retirement System — which provides benefits to retired legislators — currently has far more money in it than is required to pay current and future benefits. That’s in contrast to the much larger teacher and state employee pension systems, which are funded in the 70%-to-80% range.
The legislative system, like those for other employees, has been funded partially by payroll deductions and partially by the state.
Under House Bill 824, while a speaker’s pension would rise dramatically, he or she would also have to contribute four times as much money to the pension system as the average lawmaker. Rank-and-file lawmakers would also have to pay a slight increase into the system.
A typical lawmaker with 20 years in the General Assembly would be eligible for an annual pension of $12,000, rather than the current $8,640.
In fiscal 2021, the average pension for a teacher with 26 to 30 years of experience — similar to Ralston’s time in office — was $32,676, according to Georgia Teachers Retirement System figures.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution