FOR EVERY dollar state legislators paid into their special pension system last year, we taxpayers kicked in $11.56.
Yes, you read that correctly: $1 from your legislator, $11.56 from you.
Even worse — and I realize it’s hard to believe there could be an “even worse” — we paid that same $11.56:$1 match for former legislators. Even the ones we kicked out of office.
As a result of our great generosity, former legislators can receive pensions worth three times their annual salary. (Full-time career state employees can hope to get a pension worth about half their salaries.)
The annual pensions for people who build up 30 years credit in the General Assembly Retirement System are so heavily subsidized that legislators recoup every penny they paid in — all 30 years worth of contributions — in barely more than two years. (Annual contributions of $2,300, after 30 years, yield an annual pension of $33,000.)
We haven’t talked about this lately because the Legislature voted in 2012 to close their pension system to new members. It’s still an obscenely generous system made even more obscene by the special rules for kicked-out legislators. But the 2012 law means that once the legislators first elected before 2012 die out, it will go away. And that was such a huge step forward, in a Legislature that had refused for years even to take a recorded vote on reforms, that it was fruitless to push for any more reforms. Then.
Read my column about the 2012 law: The SC legislative pension system is dead. Maybe.
But now, our part-time legislators are talking about how to shore up the comparatively modest pension system for full-time state employees. Now, it is time to talk once again about reining in their own obscenely generous pension system.
The legislative pension system is not in financial trouble; the Legislature appropriates enough money each year to keep it fully funded. But if our part-time legislators are going to either require our full-time, career state employees to pay more for their pensions or else reduce those benefits — and really, they’re going to have to do at least one of the two, even if they also increase taxpayers’ cost — then how can they possibly justify their own obscenely generous pension system?
I should note that the $11.56 taxpayer subsidy is inflated because the pool of contributing members is shrinking due to the 2012 law. Taxpayers would also have to pour in a lot of extra money if the Legislature were to cut off the regular State Retirement System to new employees, as some lawmakers want to do.
But even before the legislative pension system was closed to new members, taxpayers kicked in $3.50 for every $1 legislators contributed. By comparison, taxpayers contributed $1.43 for every $1 regular state employees contributed last year, up just 2 cents since 2012.
I’m not convinced that part-time legislators should even qualify for pensions, but try telling them that. (New legislators join the regular State Retirement System.) And federal law won’t let us take away a pension benefit from people who are vested in that system. That’s why it was not possible to abolish the legislative system.
But federal law doesn’t require us to keep subsidizing that pension system at more than twice the rate at which we subsidize the system for teachers and social workers and highway crew members and janitors and other full-time state employees. If we require full-time state employees to pay 70 cents for every $1 the taxpayers contribute, then we ought to require our legislators to contribute at least that much. Even if you take into account that extra money we have to pay to phase out their system, that still would mean more than doubling their contributions.
And federal law certainly doesn’t require us to keep offering that super-sized subsidy to people we’ve already kicked out of office; in fact, I doubt that federal law even allows that, but it’d take a lawsuit to prove me right or wrong. If we’re going to let former legislators keep buying credit in the system, we need to require them to pay the full price, just like full-time state employees.
When the Legislature closed its special pension system to new members, I predicted that eventually one of two things would happen: Either legislators who were first elected after 2011 would decide that it makes no sense to give senior legislators and former legislators all those ridiculous benefits that they themselves can never hope to receive, and they’d rein them in. Or else they’d decide there’s no reason they shouldn’t have those same benefits.
The current effort to stop the bleeding in the State Retirement System provides the perfect forum to bring legislators’ benefits into line with everyone else’s benefits.
Unfortunately, it also provides the perfect cover to do the opposite, because the legislation will be big and technical and complicated, and it will be oh, so easy to hide within its many pages a single sentence that reopens the pension system to all those legislators — already a quarter of the membership, and more come November — who are not benefiting from it.
What we need are some legislators who will push for the former — and protect us from the latter.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.