I GOT A request the other day from a reader who wanted me to explain the perks legislators receive, in order to help people understand “why some running for office or re-election spend sometimes hundreds of thousands to get jobs making less than $15,000 per year.”
I was disinclined to write such a column, because there really aren’t that many perks — other than the over-the-top benefits they receive once they retire.
Then I came across H.4973.
H.4973 is another one of those special-license-plates bills that the Legislature can’t seem to pass enough of, but with a twist. It doesn’t create yet another special plate and turn the state into a collection agency for yet another fund-raising group.
Instead, it changes the rules for how retired state legislators buy legislative license plates. And what those license plates look like.
Read my column about the 2012 law:The SC legislative pension system is dead. Maybe.
And if you didn’t realize that retired legislators can buy legislative license plates, well … join the club.
Rep. Jimmy Bales told me he introduced the bill at the behest of some of his retired colleagues, who didn’t think the current retired-legislator tags look enough like current-legislator tags. Wrap your head around that, if you can.
When I ask if the tags are just about vanity, he sort of says yes. When I suggest that maybe they protect retired legislators from getting ticketed — the way we all believe current-legislator tags signal police not to pull over current legislators — he says retired legislators are probably very careful drivers. “I’ve never been pulled over,” he said. Which, some might argue, makes my point.
Among those with retired legislator license plates is my dear friend Bubba Cromer, a former House member who for the past 20 years has been the House’s part-time reading clerk. He speculates that people want to add the state seal to the plate “so it doesn’t look so ugly.” He offers to show me his collection of speeding tickets, going back 30 years, to dispute the notion that a legislative tag keeps anyone out of traffic court.
So maybe even prettified tags wouldn’t really be a perk, in the traditional sense of the word. And to be fair, that same section of state law also authorizes special license tags for retired state and federal judges and former members of Congress.
And the bill does have one redeeming quality: It prohibits people from purchasing retired-legislator tags if they’ve been convicted of a crime involving dishonesty or moral turpitude or a crime punishable by imprisonment of a year or more. Which would mean, among others, Bobby Harrell, Jim Merrill, Rick Quinn and, if they are convicted, John Courson, Jim Harrison and Tracy Edge.
But the main point of the bill is to allow legislators elected since 2012 to buy those retired-legislator tags once they retire. Currently, the only people who can buy them are members of the Legislature’s special pension system, which has been closed to new legislators since 2012.
Which brings us to that perks list.
The biggest perk is the General Assembly Retirement System, which allows legislators to draw a retirement check that’s 155 percent of their pay — three times what regular employees can draw if they work 30 years or purchase additional credit. The perk even allows former legislators to keep purchasing credit in the system with the same awesome subsidy that current legislators get: For every $1 legislators pay, taxpayers contribute $9.70. (We pay $1.41 for every $1 regular state employees pay.) We used to pay just $3.50 for every $1 legislators contribute, but ending the influx of new members means the subsidy has to grow as we await the death of everyone first elected prior to 2012.
As a result of our great generosity, former legislators can receive pensions worth three times their annual legislative 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.)
The other big perk is the right to buy state medical insurance at the same rates as state employees. It’s no big deal for legislators with full-time jobs with the government or large businesses. But it’s a great deal for legislators who don’t work for large employers, or at all. And unlike regular state employees, legislators can keep buying the insurance, although without taxpayer subsidies, even if we kick them out of office.
Legislators typically receive between $30,000 and $40,000 per year: $10,400 salary, plus in-district expense payments for $1,000 per month, subsistence payments of about $160 every day they’re in Columbia on official business and reimbursement for one trip to and from Columbia each week. They also get to purchase those special license plates, which might or might not be worth anything.
And while they’re in Columbia, they’re invited to receptions morning, noon and night, which some legislators relish — free food! — and others dread.
Less clear, and far more significant, is what legislators get from beyond their official compensation package.
They can’t accept any gifts from lobbyists, and only limited gifts from the people who employ lobbyists. But legislators can receive unlimited gifts from individual businesses, local governments and even some trade associations that have some interest in legislative action — some of which are quite nice (Heritage Golf Tournament passes), some of which they feel obliged to accept (scarves, baseball hats) so as to not offend the givers .
Some hold full-time government jobs or have been awarded government contracts. Would they have gotten those jobs or contracts if they weren’t legislators? Are lawyers more likely to get good-paying clients because they help elect the judges, or less likely because their legislative work gives them less time to practice law?
I think it’s extremely difficult for people who aren’t retired to serve honestly in the Legislature without losing money. But I think there are a lot of people who are willing to do that, because they are either passionate about serving or hope to parlay their legislative experience into higher office. Of course, there are also those who are looking for ways to profit from office — which might or might not be ethical and might or might not be legal.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.