Perry Entitled to Big State Pension, Health Benefits

As a Texas governor and presidential candidate, Rick Perry has repeatedly turned to the marketplace for policy solutions to health care and retirement security.

But as a private citizen, Perry has generally relied on the government.

Perry is a member of what the Texas Employees Retirement System (ERS) calls “the elected class,” which provides the kind of lucrative pension benefits that have all but disappeared from the private sector.

Under its provisions, Perry, 61, could have retired at age 50 with lifetime health care paid for by the state. To the annoyance of his opponents, he is still in office — and every year he stays will benefit him in the long run.

If Perry retires at the end of his current term, in 2014, he would be eligible to collect as much as $119,025 a year, according to calculations based on 30 years of elective service and optional provisions. Perry will also receive Social Security, which could swell his total public pension benefits to more than $140,000 annually.

The state pays 100 percent of the cost of state employees’ health insurance premiums, and Perry, an Air Force veteran, has had access to taxpayer-supported care since he joined the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets in 1968. He is entitled to state-financed health care for the rest of his life and will be eligible for Medicare after his current term expires.

The exact value of the governor’s state pension and Social Security benefits is impossible to calculate without knowing how much Perry has paid into the two systems, whether he took advantage of a state retirement provision that rewards military service, and various benefit choices that he will make upon his exit from public office.

A lawyer for the Perry presidential campaign recently delayed federal disclosures about Perry's wealth and income after citing unresolved questions about pension choices he faces, such as the option of taking a lump sum payment. However, ERS says those selections are made at the time an elected official retires, not beforehand.

Perry aides declined to provide specific details about his retirement benefits, and the ERS treats lawmakers’ pensions as confidential. Government watchdogs have repeatedly called for scaling back the generous pensions for state lawmakers, but such efforts have gone nowhere. Under current formulas, state lawmakers, who earn only $7,200 a year in salary, can leave with six-figure pensions if they rack up 35 years in the elected class system, which can include non-elective service in the military state agencies.

“This should be the easiest thing to get rid of,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, a leading conservative activist. “I don’t think any of us would begrudge some form of savings or retirement for these folks, but some degree of scale and reasonableness needs to come into play.”

Like other state employees, the governor has contributed part of his salary toward his state and federal retirement, and his aides say he should receive the benefits when he leaves office.

“Rick Perry has long paid into Social Security and the state Employees Retirement System,” said Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for the governor. “He is therefore entitled to retirement benefits consistent with state and federal laws.”

The ERS offers a “defined benefit” that is not tied to the amount contributed by taxpayers and elected officials.

“Your monthly annuity at retirement does not depend on the amount of money in your account; it will provide you with a monthly annuity for your lifetime,” says a brochure from the retirement system called “Retirement Benefits for Elected State Officials.”

In his 2010 book Fed Up!, and out on the campaign trail, entitlement programs and government-mandated health care are among Perry's favorite targets.

“I do advocate totally rethinking the safety net, personal security programs completely,” Perry said in a November 2010 interview. “Why is the government collecting your tax money for retirement and health care programs? That’s not a stated constitutional role.”

In his most ambitious policy prescription so far as a presidential candidate, Perry proposed a partial privatization of Social Security for future retirees, changes that would not affect the federal benefits he will receive.

Asked if the governor had pushed scaling back state employee benefits, aides pointed to his proposal this year, never enacted, that was designed to slightly increase spousal health care premiums if coverage was available elsewhere. In 2005, Perry signed legislation that increased lawmakers’ pensions.

Edward Zelinsky, a law professor and and pension expert at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, said generous "defined" benefit pension plans were becoming an "endangered species" as private accounts become more common.

"I think it's incredibly unfair when any decision-maker, whether it's a corporate executive, a legislator or a governor, when they say other people are going to sacrifice, but not me," Zelinsky said.

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.