This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
Twenty-three dollars is not a lot of money, but that small figure could have big political consequences.
Lawmakers’ pensions are tied to the salaries set for state district judges. Every $1,000-per-year increase in those salaries adds $23 to the amount paid to retired lawmakers for every year they served in office.
The Legislature is quietly considering a $26,909 raise for those judges. Quiet consideration is a term indicating something that is buried well inside something else, so that senators and representatives never vote on it out in the open, all by itself. Judicial salaries can be changed with a line in the enormous state budget; the vote here will be on a budget that happens to include a raise for the people who wear black robes at the office.
Almost everybody votes for the budget, even though each has at least one thing he or she disagrees with in the state’s two-year spending plan. Judicial salaries, even if linked to the lawmakers’ own pensions, are probably not a big enough issue to trigger a vote against the whole budget. It is an all-or-nothing vote.
As a matter of politics, however, it is a vote that opens officeholders to criticism of fluffing their own financial pillows while leaving other things without enough money.
The other side to this is a pretty good argument coming from the judges. Their current salaries were set in 2005. Counties are allowed to supplement the state minimum, but that doesn’t affect state lawmakers’ pensions.
Judges make less doing their jobs than the private practice lawyers who work in front of them, according to a salary study completed before the session by the state’s Judicial Compensation Commission.
That is true, to some extent, all over the country. But Texas judges rank on the low end for judicial pay when compared with their counterparts in the six most populous states. Based on inflation alone, the commission said, the base salaries ought to be around $140,000.
That panel recommended raising salaries to $151,909, a number based on comparisons with private sector pay and with judicial salaries in other big states. That would be an increase of 21.5 percent.
It would increase pensions for lawmakers by the same percentage. To figure the basic benefit, you multiply the average salary of a state district judge by a lawmaker’s years in office by 0.023. Judges currently make $125,000, so a retired lawmaker with 20 years of service would get $57,500 in annual retirement. Not a bad pension for a job that paid only $600 a month.
Lawmakers have embraced the recommendation to increase pay, which would make the judges happy and eventually pay off big for the legislators, too. The recommended increase — to $151,909 — would add $12,378.14 to the pension of that hypothetical 20-year lawmaker. That’s what happens with that little $23 per $1,000 number when you run it through the formula.
To qualify for a pension, legislators have to be in office for at least eight years, and if they serve for at least 12 years, they can begin collecting their pensions at age 50 instead of waiting until age 60. Increases in pay for judges affect not only future retirees but also current ones. It is probably worth pointing out that some of those current retirees are lobbyists, hanging around the Capitol, where it would not be entirely out of line to mention support for those hard-working jurists.
The state’s budget is being worked out by a small conference committee dispatched to settle differences between what the House and Senate have already approved. They’ve got big fish to fry, with hanging controversies over public education spending and money for the state’s water and transportation infrastructure, and steady inquiries from the governor’s office about leaving something aside for tax relief. The salary issue is relatively minor, given those worries.
There have been efforts to disconnect judicial pay from legislative retirement, to remove the built-in conflict of interest. But they have fallen short.
State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, tried — again — to break the link, but he now says that won’t fly.
“I thought I had a pretty good idea,” he said. He just couldn’t get his colleagues to go along.