State pension system seeks clarity from AG on lawmakers’ benefits

Published 9:24 am Monday, December 31, 2018

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi’s public pension system on Friday asked Attorney General Jim Hood to clarify his earlier opinion that retired public employees can collect their pensions while serving in the Legislature.

The board of the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi had voted earlier this month to ask for the clarification after Hood issued his original opinion on Nov. 29. The opinion indicates the retirement system should overturn its longtime rule that elected offices are full-time positions and people in those offices could not receive salaries and pension benefits simultaneously.

Those who support the change say they believe it will open the door for retired teachers and others knowledgeable about state government to run for legislative posts.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“It’s my opinion that it’s been an injustice all these years,” Ann Thames, president of the 3,000-member Mississippi Retired Public Employees Association, said earlier this month. “The board needs to implement the AG’s opinion.”

The system has not changes its rules yet. Executive Director Ray Higgins and board members said they’re not trying to get Hood to reverse himself. They note that there are a number of unanswered questions about what the pension system should do. The letter asks Hood to answer quickly in part because qualifying for the 2019 legislative election begins on Wednesday and ends March 1.

“We want to move forward in a very expedited manner,” Higgins said earlier this month.

The original opinion was sought by state Sen. Sollie Norwood, a Jackson Democrat who previously worked for the state Department of Human Services. Hood’s office wrote that lawmakers could get retirement benefits as long as they collected no more than half of a lawmaker’s salary and worked no more than 1,040 hours per year on legislative duties, like any other retiree under state law. Hood said he had no problem describing legislating as part-time work in Mississippi since many lawmakers hold full-time jobs in addition to their duties at the state Capitol.

As an alternative to the half time/half pay rule, state law also says retirees who return to work for a state agency can earn up to one-quarter of their previous pay and still collect pensions. The typical lawmaker is paid nearly $40,000 in salary plus an expense allowance that is taxed like income and counted as “earned compensation,” according to retirement system figures. Higgins said the system isn’t clear if the expense money also has to be counted against the 25 percent threshold. If it is, that means only lawmakers who earned more than $160,000 a year in their old jobs would be eligible to collect both lawmaker pay and a pension.

It’s unclear if lawmakers can refuse some of their salaries or expenses, because state law says legislators “shall” be paid for salaries and expenses, a phrasing that makes a paycheck mandatory.

State law also calls for 90 days between when employees retire and when they start collecting pension benefits. Higgins said it’s unclear whether that means a sitting lawmaker has to leave the Legislature, or whether they can just forgo legislative pay for 90 days.

Finally, any lawmaker collecting a pension wouldn’t be accumulating new pension credit on their legislative salary. But lawmakers also get an extra pension called the Supplemental Legislative Retirement Plan. The credit for the supplemental plan is based on credits for the regular legislative salary. Higgins said the system is unsure if it should award supplemental credits and how to calculate them if it’s not awarding regular credit.