Will Texas Lawmakers Cut Their Own Benefits?

Texas Capitol
Texas Capitol

As they talk of cutting pension contributions and raising premiums for state employee health care, having state employees pay to park in state garages, and mandating layoffs and furloughs at state agencies, what are lawmakers doing to their own compensation and benefits?

It’s a mixed bag. They already trimmed their regular pay, in a roundabout way. Their health benefits work just like those for state employees, which means lawmakers shoulder the same added costs and/or lowered coverages they impose on state workers. Their retirement benefits — arguably the most lucrative benefit available to a state legislator in Texas — probably won’t change.

Lawmakers’ base pay — a whopping $600 per month — is set in the state Constitution. Asking for more money is the sort of daredevil act that sometimes lures one or two legislators but not enough of them to actually make a change. Even if you could get it through the Legislature, you’d have to get it past the voters; if the public is clamoring for higher pay for politicians, it’s been seriously underreported.

Other officeholders are paid more. The chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, for instance, makes $152,500. The governor makes $150,000. Railroad commissioners make $137,500 (unless they have refused, for personal or political reasons, to accept pay raises; one, Michael Williams, makes less than $100,000 annually).

Legislators’ money comes from other places. Their per diem, for instance. That’s the daily pay they get to cover travel, lodging and meal expenses when they’re on the road, like during the 140 days they’re in Austin every other year for regular legislative sessions. At the beginning of the session, lawmakers asked the Texas Ethics Commission to lower that daily stipend to $150 from $168.

Left alone — it was tied to federal per diem tables that change periodically — it would have automatically risen to $175. That’s not nothing: Each member who claims every day of the legislative session is in line to get $21,000. Had they not lowered the rate, they’d each be getting $24,500. As it stands, a lawmaker’s two-year term — assuming the base pay and 140 days of per diem — pays $35,400, or $17,700 annually.

It’s a citizen legislature, the argument goes, and they should get the rest of their money from whatever they do for a living in real life. And besides, that’s not all they get. Their best benefits are state employee health insurance and their retirement packages. One could get trimmed this session; the other appears to be safe.

State lawmakers and other officeholders would share, with state employees, other cuts that might be made to balance the budget this year. Gov. Rick Perry’s budget proposal would add a surcharge to anyone adding a spouse to the health plan if the spouse is eligible for coverage at his or her own place of employment. Lawmakers are considering higher rates for dependent coverage, which would ding them at the same time it dings state employees.

If the state starts charging employees to park in state lots and garages, that could also hit the officeholders, unless they vote to exempt themselves. Layoffs won’t affect them, directly, but could affect their offices. Legislators have already cut their office budgets a little during the session and have promised deeper cuts in the interim between the end of this session and the beginning of the next one.

Their retirement packages, however, are not on the block. Statewide officeholders’ retirement is based on their substantial state salaries. But legislators don’t have to fret: their packages are based on the salaries of judges, which are currently set at $125,000 (a bigger number that can be raised periodically without the political risk of touching legislative salaries). The formula is that salary amount multiplied by the years of service in the Legislature, multiplied by 2.3 percent.

Legislators have to serve for at least eight years to get the retirement benefit. If they’ve got eight years of service, they’re eligible to begin collecting state retirement at age 60. If they’ve got 10 years experience, they can start collecting at age 50.

It’s a sweet deal. A lawmaker with eight years on the job can get $23,000 per year in retirement. It’s $28,750 for 10 years of service. And each year of service — based on the current salary of a state district judge — adds another $2,875 to the annual benefit. A retired 20-year lawmaker gets $57,500, plus health care.

Texas’ teacher and public employee pension plans are in better shape than many of their counterparts in other states, but lawmakers are looking at changes in benefits for either the employees in the system now or for people hired in the future. They’re talking about lowering the state’s contributions to those funds or perhaps raising retirement ages because of the budget shortfall.

So far, they haven’t suggested cutting back on their own plan.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.