Georgia House panel moves forward on bills to increase legislator pensions

Georgia State Representative John Carson speaks on HB 113 during a Subcommittee of Public Safety & Homeland Security meeting at the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Monday, February 11, 2019. Rep. Carson spoke on HB 113 during the subcommittee meeting, which was passed unanimously. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Caption
Georgia State Representative John Carson speaks on HB 113 during a Subcommittee of Public Safety & Homeland Security meeting at the Paul D. Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Monday, February 11, 2019. Rep. Carson spoke on HB 113 during the subcommittee meeting, which was passed unanimously. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The state House Retirement Committee on Tuesday moved ahead on bills that could increase the pensions of part-time lawmakers up to 67% and at least triple what House Speaker David Ralston could receive.

The panel voted to do actuarial studies on three bills — all filed in the final days of the 2021 session. The studies — which essentially determine the cost of the bills — have to be completed before the committee can formally act on legislation during the 2022 session, which begins in January.

The Georgia House in 2018 passed similar proposals, but the measures stalled in the Senate after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on them.

One of the bills filed this year, House Bill 838, by Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, would increase Ralston’s pension from about $11,000 a year currently to almost $38,000. That’s about the average pension of a retired teacher in Georgia.

Fleming said that would put the speaker’s pension more in line with other full-time state employees. Ralston is paid about $99,000 a year, but under the law, he gets the same pension — which is $36 a month times years in office — as rank-and-file lawmakers.

“The current law treats the speaker like any part-time legislator,” Fleming said, even though Ralston’s position has essentially been a full-time job for a long time.

Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, is a lawyer when the General Assembly is not in session.

Another of the bills, House Bill 824 by Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, would increase the pension benefit from $36 per month times years in office to $60. So a lawmaker with 20 years in the General Assembly would be eligible for an annual pension of $14,400, rather than the current $8,640.

Most lawmakers currently earn a part-time salary of $17,324 a year.

The third bill, House Bill 845, by Rep. Tom Kirby, R-Loganville, would increase the benefit to $50 per month, per year in office. Or lawmakers could get 38% of their legislative pay, whichever is higher.

The bill would also increase the contribution lawmakers make into the system to help pay for the higher pension.

Part of the reason lawmakers can look at raising their pensions is that the 54-year-old 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. But in recent years it’s been in such good shape that officials said taxpayers didn’t have to add anything to the fund.

The bills also have been a reaction to ongoing concerns that the low pay and benefits for lawmakers haven’t changed in at least a decade while the workload has increased, making the job less attractive.

“I support every legislator here having the ability to get some return on their investment or sacrifice,” said Rep. Dominick LaRiccia, R-Douglas, a member of the Retirement Committee.

In March, the Georgia Senate voted down a 70% raise for lawmakers and a big hike for statewide elected officials contained in legislation that would have supplied the first big salary increase for the General Assembly in a few decades.

The raises proposed in Senate Bill 252, sponsored by Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, came out of a 2017 compensation study that said lawmakers and many statewide elected officials were underpaid.

Many legislators 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.

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.

But voting for either a pay raise or pension increase is politically dicey, which is one of the reasons why such legislation has stalled. Pension bills can only be voted through in the second year of a two-year General Assembly term. That means lawmakers have to approve them in an election year, when they are likely running for another term and their vote is subject to criticism from opponents.

However, there may be a way around having to vote on the bills. Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, a veteran member of the committee, said the system’s board of directors can increase the pension on its own.

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