This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
When state Rep. Chris Turner started looking for other states that allow their politicians to retire without leaving their jobs, he could only find one: Texas.
At a public hearing Monday evening on his bill to end the practice, the Grand Prairie Democrat said the lucrative benefit — which got widespread attention when Gov. Rick Perry revealed that he was both collecting his salary and a pension from the state — flies in the face of the oft-repeated brag that Texas stands out as a beacon of budgetary restraint.
“At this Capitol we frequently tout Texas as a national example for fiscal responsibility,” said Turner, who has filed House Bill 413, which would ban “double dipping.” “This legislation helps us make that case more credibly, I think, by barring elected officials from being paid twice by our state taxpayers for one job.”
The bill was left pending in the House Pensions Committee.
Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said that if both the House and Senate pass the bill and send it to the governor, it would get full consideration.
“The governor will review any bill that makes it through the process and into his desk,” Nashed said.
Perry began drawing a $92,000-a-year pension in early 2011 by taking advantage of an obscure law that allows long-serving members of the state “elected class” — and that includes the longest-serving governor in Texas history — to start drawing a pension without leaving office.
News of the double-dipping came toward the end of Perry’s failed run for president, when he handed in federal disclosure forms that require candidates to reveal any pension income they have. Such disclosures aren’t required under state law.
Turner said he was inspired to file HB 413 after learning of Perry’s early pension draw, but his bill would not cut off the governor's pension. It would only apply to future state officeholders. Nor would it apply to nonelected retirees, including teachers or state employees, who are elected to state office, he said.
In compiling research for the legislation, Turner asked the National Conference of State Legislatures to identify states that allow the type of double-dipping Perry is doing. The group told him Texas was the only state the NCSL could find.
The organization said that more than a dozen states specifically prohibit their elected officials from receiving a pension annuity unless they actually leave office and retire, Turner told the House Pensions Committee on Monday.
In Texas, under a provision that has existed at least since the early 1990s, elected officials can transfer credits gained in the elected class and apply them to the separate employee class system. They can still keep accruing benefits until they retire again.
That’s what Perry has done.
It’s impossible to know how many others may be doing it because members of the elected class don't have to tell anyone about it, and pension benefits are considered a state secret by the Employee Retirement System. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has said he plans to avail himself of the double-dipping provision if he is elected lieutenant governor, a job that pays only $7,200 in salary.
Under Turner’s bill, elected officials could no longer use credits accumulated from their service in elective office to retire while still collecting a state salary.
“It’s situations such as this — collecting a pension without retiring — that makes Texans cynical about politics and angry that politicians could ever receive such a lucrative perk that most families could never dream of for themselves,” Turner said.
Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, a member of the committee and a potential candidate for attorney general in 2014, said he supports "the concept” of Turner’s bill.
Meanwhile, Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, said he worried about "unintended consequences." He asked if, for example, a county elected official who goes on to serve in state elected office would be impacted by the bill. Catherine Terrell of the Employees Retirement System told King that the legislation applied only to members of the elected class, which includes state district judges and district attorneys but not other county elected officials, including county judges.
Given the late date of the session, which ends in barely more than a month, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will pass it out of committee in time for it to survive passage through a Legislature that generally hasn't shown much appetite for curtailing its own benefits and privileges.