An obscure 1991 provision dealing with state pension benefits was only a few paragraphs long, and it escaped public notice at the time. Even the lawmakers who passed it said they did not know what the fine print accomplished until it became law.
But 20 years later, Gov. Rick Perry — and an elite group of other veteran politicians — can thank Government Code 813.503 for the lucrative pension benefits they are allowed to collect without leaving office.
Politicians’ pension records are private, so it is unknown how many are taking advantage of the provision. But any state representative, senator or nonjudicial state-elected official who meets the age and service requirements is entitled to some benefit under the law, at wildly varying amounts depending on the official’s highest average state salary and individual circumstances, Employees Retirement System officials say.
Perry invoked the provision last year, disclosing in December that he had boosted his take-home pay by more than $90,000 a year through his on-the-job retirement. He also makes $150,000 a year as governor.
It was the first in-depth look the public has had at a retirement perk that was quietly enhanced and slipped into the law.
In Texas, the considerable pension benefits given to politicians are exempt from government transparency laws and not subject to ethics disclosure rules. But Perry, a presidential candidate before dropping out last month, had to reveal the pension payments to the Federal Election Commission.
The unexpected news that he was already collecting retirement benefits stirred disbelief from critics and open-government advocates. They wondered how a politician could “retire” without leaving work — or having to tell anyone about it.
“Anytime taxpayers’ money is involved, they should have the right to know how it is being spent,” said Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “They are being denied the opportunity to voice their support, or opposition, to such policies.”
Perry, who made the elimination of lavish congressional perks a centerpiece of his unsuccessful presidential campaign, declined to release the paperwork he completed to get the early pension. But he noted that the public already knew he took his.
And he said he would be foolish not to.
“I would suggest to you that it’s rather inappropriate if you’ve earned something if you don’t take it and take care of your family,” Perry said. “This was put into place by the Legislature, and if your point is it’s not appropriate, then the Legislature will change it.”
There has not exactly been a rush to eliminate the provision, which many politicians, past and present, say they were not aware of until Perry ran for president.
Among them is former state Sen. Bob Glasgow, D-Stephenville, who carried the pension revision in the Senate in 1991. He said that he did not know he had sponsored a new perk — or that it was of particular interest to Bob Bullock, then the lieutenant governor.
Bullock, who ran state government like a ward boss when Democrats ruled Texas, was adept at passing laws with minimal or no public attention. Glasgow said he first learned that Bullock had used the law to pad the tiny part-time salary given to legislators and lieutenant governors — $7,200 a year — after Perry disclosed that he had used the same law.
Bullock, who died in 1999, voluntarily disclosed in 1992 that he was collecting a pension, but it became a hot topic only when reporters began digging into the circumstances of Perry’s retirement. Glasgow said he would not have favored the pension perk then and does not now.
“That’s just got the tenor of double dipping,” he said.
The legislation’s House sponsor, Nolan “Buzz” Robnett, R-Lubbock, said he was vaguely aware that Bullock wanted the retirement language but did not know Bullock had used it until the bill had become law.
The 1991 provision, revised from a weaker incarnation, says that all nonjudicial state elected officials, in either the Legislature or in statewide office, can retire under two different systems — the elected class and the employee class. They can transfer credit between the two both before and after retirement, and are allowed to accrue benefits in the elected class after retiring from the employee class.
Perry retired as a state employee in January 2011 and began collecting a gross monthly annuity of $7,700. Perry’s high salary puts him in an elite group of 189 employees who are making at least $100,000 annually while simultaneously drawing a state pension, according to figures provided by the state comptroller.
Many of those employees have specialized skills that make them highly valuable to their agencies, but their names are secret because of pension confidentiality rules.
Rank-and-file state employees who are not part of the elected class cannot keep accruing pension benefits if they return to state government employment after retiring.
But Perry, because of his elected class designation, can retire again when he leaves office and receive credit for the additional years served, which will increase his pension even more.
Members of the Legislature can also take advantage of the provision, but their low salaries generally make it a less attractive option. For example, a member with 30 years in office would be entitled to only $5,000 a year in state employee pension payouts, collectible without leaving office.
Then, if the legislator retired again two years later from the elected class, he or she would be eligible to collect $92,000 a year. The option is more attractive to legislators who earned higher state salaries, including those who worked for state government before holding elective office.
Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, could begin collecting as much as $10,000 a year without leaving office because he worked for the state making $18,000 a year before he was elected to the Texas House in 1990. Naishtat would receive a much higher pension from a second retirement.
Naishtat said he doubted he would take advantage of the perk because he shies away from "anything that doesn’t pass the smell test."
But Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Republican who wants to run for lieutenant governor, plans to follow in Perry’s footsteps if he gets elected. He said he could not pay his bills on the tiny salary that comes with the otherwise powerful office.
“I don’t see anything wrong with it, and I intend to do the same thing,” Patterson said. “Six hundred a month is not something I can live on.”