JACKSON — Speaker of the House Philip Gunn is right to bow up about state retirees serving in the Legislature.
In late 2018, then Attorney General Jim Hood altered the political landscape for retirees with this opinion: “The PERS Retiree members have vested rights to their benefits, are entitled to receive their benefits and, if qualified and elected, they have a right to serve as a representative or senator in the Mississippi Legislature without forfeiture of their PERS retirement benefits, so long as they meet the conditions imposed by Section 25-11-127(1) and (4).”
Those conditions are: (1) No retiree can be re-employed until he or she has been fully retired for 90 consecutive days; and (4) Retirees may be employed half time and receive no more than half of the salary for the position, or may be employed full time but receive no more than 25% of their average compensation prior to retirement.
Months later, the PERS (Public Employees’ Retirement System) board amended its rules to conform with Hood’s opinion, adopting these provisions for legislators: a) “a retiree may work for a period of time in any fiscal year not to exceed one-half of the normal working days for the position or one-half of the equivalent number of hours, as established by the employer, during which the retiree will receive no more than one-half of the salary in effect for the position;” or b) “a retiree may work for a period of time in any fiscal year sufficient in length to permit a retiree to earn not in excess of 25 percent of the retiree’s average compensation.”
Relevant compensation for legislators includes their $10,000 salaries plus out-of-session per diem of $1,500 per month, a total of $22,000 to $23,500 annually.
Previously, retirees were considered ineligible to serve as legislators by Section 25-11-127 (2) and Section 25-11-109. Hood rationalized this away in his opinion. His main argument was that since Section 25-11-127(6) allows municipal and county retirees to hold office (at reduced pay), the other subsections in Section 25-11-127 and 109 did not bar retirees from serving in the Legislature.
Gunn does not buy that argument, telling Mississippi Today it allows retirees “to double dip” by drawing both legislative pay and state pension benefits. For four state retirees just elected to the House, he has refused to allow them reduced legislative compensation to meet the new guidelines. “I am simply following the law,” he said. One new member has quit, and the other three have suspended their PERS benefits.
Gunn’s legal argument may not hold, but he should stick to his guns for now. Everything related to legislators and retirement should be reformed first. And with retirees already dominating the PERS board, they don’t need more influence in the Legislature until PERS’ severe financial problems are fixed.
A sensible reform would legally define legislators as part-time employees earning less than half a full-time salary. That would allow retirees to serve with full benefits while reducing taxpayers’ cost since unretired legislators currently accrue PERS benefits at full-time rates plus have their own supplemental plan (SLRP).
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. — Jeremiah 7:3
• Bill Crawford is a Republican former state lawmaker from Meridian. He was a member of Haley Barbour’s commission to study PERS.