Another state representative resigns over pension, pay squabble

Published 2:27 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A Mississippi lawmaker is resigning as of Tuesday because he will not be able to collect his state government pension while serving in the state House.

Republican Rep. Billy Andrews of Purvis is the second House member to resign for this reason since the four-year term started in January. Republican Rep. Ramona Blackledge of Laurel stepped down Jan. 31.

Andrews is a retired Lamar County Court judge. In his letter resigning from the House, he wrote that he qualified to run for the House based on the belief that he could serve for less than full legislative pay and still receive his pension through the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System. He said the Republican House speaker, Philip Gunn, “has blocked that effort.”

Andrews represents District 87 in Forrest and Lamar counties. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves will have to set a special election to fill that seat for the rest of the term.

The Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System had a longstanding rule that said state elected officials could not receive salaries and pension benefits simultaneously. In November 2018, then-Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, issued a nonbinding legal opinion contradicting that rule.

In late 2019, the pension board finalized a rule that went along with Hood’s legal opinion. It said said Mississippi government retirees can continue collecting pension benefits while also being paid to serve in the Legislature.

Gunn said in January that he disagreed with Hood’s interpretation of state law. Gunn also said that if legislators want to change the law that has been in place for decades, they should file a bill to do so. A bill was filed and was killed during a hastily called House committee meeting after he said that.

In the resignation letter submitted Thursday, Andrews apologized to his House constituents for leaving office.

“The failure of our state leadership to implement a policy allowing PERS retirees to serve has denied legislative service to over 100,000 current retirees and over 100,000 members who are still active,” Andrews wrote. “The change will come — but not until Gunn and other leaders stand up and do what is right.”

Andrews and Blackledge were among the four retired public employees — all Republican — who were elected to the House in November. The other two remain in the House.