NORTH TEXAS (The Texas Tribune) - Just like Governor Rick Perry, state Rep. Lon Burnam has been told he can start drawing a government pension right now, without leaving his job.
But Burnam said he has no plans to take the money.
Instead, the Fort Worth Democrat wants to stop the hidden perk reserved exclusively for elected officials, and he plans to file legislation that would require the Employees Retirement System to reveal which Texas politicians are collecting a government salary and a state pension at the same time.
"I think the public has a right to know who is double dipping. We only found out about the governor because he was running for [president], and he had to disclose," Burnam said. "He didn't volunteer that information when he first started collecting."
At least one other state elected official who appears to be eligible for the perk, Comptroller Susan Combs, has repeatedly refused to say whether or not she is taking advantage of it. Attorney General Greg Abbott, a former state judge, currently collects no state pension, his office told The Texas Tribune. Both are Republicans.
The state considers the pension information to be secret, but Perry had to reveal the payments on federal disclosure forms in December, a little more than a month before pulling the plug on his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Taking advantage of a perk that allows longtime elected officials to retire while remaining on the job, Perry boosted his yearly take home pay by more than $90,000. He makes $150,000 as governor.
After hearing about Perry's on-the-job retirement, Burnam began inquiring about his own status. He discovered his pension check would not be anywhere near the amount Perry gets. But Burnam could double his monthly salary.
He said ERS told him last week that he qualifies for a monthly annuity of $680.89. Texas legislators, considered part time because they meet in regular session every other year, make only $600 a month.
Whatever the size, there is virtually no downside to the perk. It's free money.
Once Burnam leaves office, he would be eligible to retire again and collect a much higher annuity. That's because lawmakers are in a special "elected class" that lets them use the salary of a state district judge to calculate their retirement benefit. Burnam, first elected in 1996, would be eligible to collect $57,500 a year if he retires with 20 years of state service, for example.
Burnam said he was shocked when he learned that Perry could retire without leaving office, and he was just as stunned when he found out that Texas legislators could take advantage of the same 1991 law that former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, a Democrat, used to boost his pay years ago.
The law allows Texas politicians to move retirement credits back and forth between the "employee class" and the "elected class." In other words, lawmakers who meet age and service requirements can retire as regular state employees and begin collecting a pension immediately. Then they can retire again from the "elected class" when they leave office.
The higher the salary earned the better it is for the pension recipient, so statewide elected officials like the governor and comptroller have a huge advantage over legislators.
Burnam worked for the state in the 1970s and 1980s, and he made more than the $7,200 annual salary he gets as a Texas lawmaker. Under state employee retirement rules, he gets to use his highest 36 months' worth of salary, so the benefit is larger than it would be if he were just using his lowly legislative pay.
Even though he is eligible to retire immediately, Burnam said he has no plans to pocket the pension money. He is exploring options that would allow him to redirect the monthly annuity toward a worthy cause, such as public education.
"I'm not going to collect it for my own benefit because I don't think it's right," Burnam said. "If the governor wants to do it and it's legal, I guess he's gonna get away with it, but I don't think it passes the smell test." Perry has said he would be foolish not to take a pension benefit he has earned and is entitled to collect now.
Burnam said he favors doing away with the perk altogether, but he predicted a bill banning the practice would be unpopular in a Legislature that stands to benefit from it. Legislation requiring public disclosure of the lucrative perk would be harder for politicians to oppose, he said.
The Legislature won't meet again in regular session until early 2013, but Burnam is already trying to get information about how many people are double dipping their salary and pensions. He sent a letter to ERS on Tuesday asking for records that would shed light on the extent of the perk.
(© Copyright 2012 The Texas Tribune. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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