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Life of a Texas Lawmaker: Lousy Pay, Great Benefits

The pay for Texas lawmakers is low, but the pension benefits are sweet. Some say, though, that lawmakers who break the law should have to forfeit their pensions.

The chamber of the Texas House

Texas legislators get paid less than the people who sack your groceries, which, when you think about it, seems perfectly rational. But lawmakers’ bennies are sweet, starting with guaranteed pensions after eight years on the job.

That doesn’t sit well with everyone, including a couple of this year’s candidates for the Legislature, who think the benefits — if they continue at all — should be cut off if lawmakers break the law.

Jim Pruitt, a former criminal judge in Dallas County who is running for an open House seat in North Texas, wants lawmakers convicted of felonies to forfeit their pensions, and he is questioning whether lawmakers ought to collect any pensions at all. In a nearby open seat, Amber Fulton (who has the same political consultant), is making that same point about lawbreaking lawmakers, without questioning the pensions.

Serving in the Legislature, while enormously time-consuming, is supposed to be a part-time gig for the civically interested Texan. Keep the 9-to-5 job that pays the mortgage and feeds the family and, for 140 days every two years, come to Austin and legislate on behalf of your fellow citizens. In between, you and your staff can take care of constituent services, helping this one obtain vital records like birth and death certificates, helping that one with a regulatory issue in some agency.

That arrangement obviously requires some forbearance at work. At a minimum, a lawmaker will spend at least four days a week in Austin in January through May of every odd-numbered year. It’s not easy, but neither is serving on a school board or a city council or doing volunteer work.

The pay genuinely stinks. It’s $600 per month, plus a daily allowance of $150 for those days when a lawmaker is in Austin or on the road for official business. Voters have turned back various attempts to turn these into full-time jobs with full-time pay.

That doesn’t mean it’s not lucrative in the long term.

Texas legislators who serve at least eight years are entitled to start collecting pension benefits at age 60. If a lawmaker has at least 12 years of service, the benefits can start when the lawmaker is 50.

The benefits aren’t based on that $600-per-month paycheck, either, but on the salary paid to state district judges. That salary, set by the same legislators whose pensions depend on it, is $125,000. There’s a formula ($125,000 x .023 x years of service), but the bottom line is that retired Texas lawmakers get an annual pension of $2,875 for every year they were in office, as long as they have met the minimum service requirements.

It adds up. That eight-year lawmaker would get $23,000 annually starting at age 60. After 12 years? $34,500, starting at the ripe old age of 50.

Every case has particulars — adjustments and deductions for this and that — but it’s easy to figure a lawmaker’s base benefit just by knowing the years in office. For instance, former Speaker Tom Craddick — the longest-serving state legislator in office and the second-longest in state history — took office in 1969 and will have 44 years of service at the end of his current term. The Midland Republican is running, unopposed, for re-election. But if he were to retire at the end of this term, his annual pension benefit would be $126,500.

Under the rules, he’s earned it. But what about felons? Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, got caught reimbursing travel expenses from his campaign accounts that had also been reimbursed by the state. He pleaded guilty last year to a third-degree felony and isn’t seeking re-election. Former Rep. Terri Hodge, a Dallas Democrat, went to prison on a federal tax fraud conviction. Former Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, got five years probation for his conviction on charges stemming from improper disclosures of his income.

Should they still collect their pensions?

Under current law, there’s no question: yes. But some of this year’s candidates in other races are making an issue of it. Flores served for 14 years, Hodge for 13, and Driver will have 20.

Know a grocery sacker with a pension like that?

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