Government watchdogs swiftly criticized Gov. Rick Perry two years ago after he revealed that he was taking advantage of an obscure perk that allowed a long-serving elected official like him to collect both a salary and pension.
But efforts to ban the practice of double dipping, or even require disclosure of it, went nowhere this year in the Texas Legislature.
That could change when lawmakers meet again in 2015. Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate to replace the retiring Perry, is pushing ethics reform and recently told a TV station he wanted to prohibit double dipping by politicians. His most likely Democratic opponent, state Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, also supports the ban.
The endorsements are welcome news to state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, who fought a lonely battle this year to prohibit future double dipping. But Republican leaders ignored the bill, and it never got past the committee stage.
Turner said he could have used help from Abbott, a close Perry ally, when the bill was up for a debate, and he questioned why Abbott was talking about it on the campaign trail now.
“He had every opportunity in the last two years to go on record saying that he thinks it’s wrong,” Turner said. “When he had the opportunity to do something, he did nothing.”
Matt Hirsch, a spokesman for Abbott, sidestepped the criticism about Abbott’s previous silence and said the attorney general wholeheartedly embraced a prohibition.
“Texas is the nation’s shining example for fiscal responsibility, and Greg Abbott believes hard-working taxpayers deserve transparency from their elected officials,” Hirsch said. “That’s why, as governor, he would support legislation that bans double dipping.”
While Texas legislators are considered part-time state employees and make only $600 a month in salary, they have uncommonly generous pensions. A legislator can get one after just eight years and, with 12 years of service, can begin receiving a guaranteed annuity at age 50.
And the pension is not tied to a legislator’s meager salary but rather to the pay of a state district judge, now set at $140,000. It gets even better for long-serving members of the “elected class.” Those who meet the longevity requirements can “retire” and keep their state salaries without leaving office.
That’s what Perry did, quietly, in early 2011. As a result, he immediately increased his take-home pay by $92,000. He kept his job and the $150,000 salary that goes with it.
Perry has said that he would be “foolish” not to take advantage of the provision, which has been on the law books at least since the early 1990s, when Bob Bullock, a Democrat, then the lieutenant governor, did.
Already, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Republican, is pledging to use the law to increase his pay if he gets elected lieutenant governor in 2014. Otherwise, he said, he could not afford to take the job, which pays the same paltry sum legislators get.
With 23 years of elected service credit, Patterson, a former state senator, could collect as much as $74,000 a year in the elected class. He said he would donate his annual legislative salary to charity if elected.
Lax Texas ethics laws do not require politicians to disclose pension income, so it is unclear who else might be taking advantage of the provision. Perry’s double dipping unexpectedly came to light during his unsuccessful run for president, thanks to more stringent federal disclosure laws.
The lack of transparency in Texas prompted legislators from both parties — including Davis — to file or support legislation that would add pensions to state disclosure forms. But like Turner’s proposed ban, the idea of shedding more light on double dipping got no traction at the Capitol.
Turner hopes that Perry’s retirement and the blessing from his most likely successors will give him the thrust he needs to pass a ban next time around.
“I still don’t think it’s going to be a cakewalk,” Turner said. “Certainly, any kind of major ethics reform often does take multiple sessions. I think this is no exception. I think it will gain momentum every time it comes up.”
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