South Carolina’s part-time lawmakers say they work hard for their $10,400-a-year salaries from taxpayers, adding their obligations continue long after the clank of the gavel in June that ends each legislative session.
But their actual pay is far higher, according to an analysis of records The State obtained through an open records request.
Added to their salaries, legislators received money for expenses that raised their income to about $31,000 on average last year, according to that analysis.
Lawmakers are not required to report whether they actually spent that added money on expenses. They just can pocket the added money.
Critics say that means the expense payouts are a back-door way of boosting lawmakers’ pay while leaving their salaries untouched, avoiding the political fallout that would come from pushing to give themselves raises.
“They say it helps them defray the cost of being a legislator in their district, but my opinion, what I've heard, is most of them pocket 80 to 90 percent of the money,” said John Crangle of the Common Cause of South Carolina good-government group.
Twenty-five of the state’s 170 lawmakers also made more money in 2014 by taking retirement pay from the General Assembly’s exclusive pension while keeping their elected office. Those legislators continued to collect all legislative compensation except for their $10,400 base salary.
Legislative pensions are very lucrative, paying out at triple the rate offered to other state employees. The pension payments are based on the lawmakers’ base salary — $10,400 for most lawmakers but extra for those in leadership positions — and their in-district expenses — $12,000 total in 2014.
Based on that $22,400 compensation, a lawmaker who retires after 30 years in office would make $32,390 a year in retirement pay, according to a formula provided by the state’s retirement agency.
A state employee with the same income and years of service would earn $12,230 a year in retirement.
Lawmakers closed their exclusive pension program to newly elected legislators in 2012 amid efforts to remedy projected pension shortfalls in the statewide retirement system.
But most current lawmakers remain members of the now-closed, cushier General Assembly pension program. The legislative pension system also carries no penalties for lawmakers who leave office in scandal.
But that could change.
After House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance charges and resigned in October, state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, said he started looking for ways to limit access to the perks that disgraced lawmakers receive.
“We can't take anybody's retirement,” said Ballentine. But the Republican has introduced a bill to bar lawmakers who commit certain crimes from benefiting from the state’s health and dental plans.
“If you are punished for things like we've seen here lately ... the last thing that you should be able to do is to keep (legislative benefits).”
‘How can you afford to do this?’
Far from being too high, some lawmakers say their pay is too low, if anything.
“Maybe at one time, this job was a part-time job, but I receive more constituents at my office than I do clients now,” said state Sen. John Scott, a Richland Democrat who has been in the General Assembly since 1990.
Scott and other lawmakers say the half-year legislative sessions require year-round work. Helping constituents and continuing committee work can bleed into summer and fall, even after the gavel strikes in June to end the legislative session, which starts each January.
While the Legislature session ends in June, state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said he still spends between 20 and 30 hours a week on legislative work.
People who ask about legislative salaries usually are “stunned at the (low) amount of money we make,” Courson said. They ask: “How can you afford to do this?”
Courson, a lawmaker for 30 years, also was Senate president pro tempore for two years, increasing his responsibilities. He earned more than $34,000 last year from his state Senate job, including $11,000 for being president pro tem, $650 for chairing the Senate Education Committee and $12,750 for postage and in-district expenses.
Even though Courson lives in Columbia’s Shandon neighborhood, just minutes from the State House, he also received $9,666 last year to cover the cost of food and lodging while the Legislature was in session.
Sen. Scott notes the compensation that lawmakers receive has not increased in two decades. The expense money they receive is counted as taxable income, he added.
S.C. lawmakers should be making about $37,000 a year for the work they do to bring them in line with other states, he said. “We are nowhere in the ballpark.”
‘Absurdly low for the ... time’
Lawmakers should rethink how they are paid, coming up with a salary that is fair and does not require pooling several income sources, Courson and others say.
Lynn Teague, with the League of Women Voters, said lawmakers’ base salary of $10,400 “is absurdly low for the amount of time a legislator puts in.”
An analysis of lawmakers’ base salaries probably would show they need to be raised, Teague added. But the league “wouldn't want to see that happen without a full-scale assessment of the other pots of money” paying lawmakers, she said.
Legislators last raised their base pay in 1990, increasing their salaries to $10,400 from $10,000. Lawmakers started collecting $1,000 a month for in-district expenses in 1995, a year after approving an increase from $300.
Last year, lawmakers OK’d doubling their in-district expense payments to $2,000 a month, which would have given each lawmaker a $12,000-a-year raise. However, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the proposal.
Haley objected to the expense increase, saying lawmakers’ strategy for giving themselves more money was less than transparent.
On top of their salaries and expense payments, lawmakers are paid $140 a day for every day they attend the session. That money is meant to cover the cost of lodging and food while in Columbia. The also receive mileage reimbursement for one trip from their home driveway to the State House each week of session.
That money is paid out automatically – not drawn down through reimbursements for actual expenses.
That system of paying food-and-lodging expenses favors lawmakers who live close to the State House and do not have to rent a hotel room or eat out at a restaurant while in Columbia, Common Cause’s Crangle said.
Cushy pension system
After July 2012, newly elected lawmakers were shut out of participating in the General Assembly’s retirement program. New legislators now can join the retirement system offered all state employees or opt out.
Still, the 2012 cutoff date left many lawmakers in line to receive the more generous benefits of the legislative pension system.
Other perks of the old system?
Lawmakers who are in the Legislature for eight years can leave office and continue contributing about $2,500 a year so that they can draw legislative pension benefits when they retire. If they turn 60 while in office, they can retire and draw benefits no matter how many years they have contributed to their retirement. Lawmakers can stay in office and also draw benefits if they have been members of the pension system for 30 years or turn 70 in office.
That system also pays legislators who stay in office after retiring.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, for example, earns about $36,000 a year from his legislative pension, according to his 2014 income disclosures filed with the state.
Leatherman also netted $28,774 last year from his role as Senate Finance Committee chairman and payments to cover expenses while in Columbia and back home in his Florence district.
This year, Leatherman also will earn an additional $11,000 for being Senate president pro tem, pushing his total potential earnings for the year, including his state retirement, to more than $75,000 a year.
Other legislators may be collecting legislative pensions while continuing to hold office as well.
Legislators are not required to report their retirement income, said a state Ethics Commission attorney. Many don’t. Leatherman is one of only a few lawmakers who reports his pension on state ethics filings.
Curb perks for the disgraced?
But some parts of the cushy legislative retirement system could face changes.
Rep. Ballentine said the recent ethics scandals at the State House make him question whether lawmakers who leave office after committing crimes deserve to continue to reap legislative benefits.
Now, nothing in state law prohibits lawmakers from receiving their retirement pay and other benefits when they become eligible.
Harrell, the ex-House speaker, declined to comment Friday on Ballentine’s bill to bar disgraced legislators from using the state’s health and dental plans.
The Charleston Republican did confirm, however, that he is two years shy of his 60th birthday, when he will become eligible to draw retirement from the state.
Harrell earned $41,000 from his legislative job in 2014, making him the highest-paid legislator who did not receive a pension. His 2014 earnings fell a few thousand dollars short of his 2013 legislative income because he left office early when he resigned.
Harrell’s retirement will be based on most of those annual earnings, excluding money for travel, food and lodging, leaving him with roughly $35,000 in annual retirement pay.
Other disgraced lawmakers continue to draw state retirement pay.
For example, ex-state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, already was drawing about $33,000 a year in retirement pay when he resigned in 2013 amid accusations that he spent campaign money on personal expenses.
Ford now faces criminal charges.