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A Green Light for Lawmakers' Pension Hikes, Double Dipping

UPDATED: State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, again attempted to add a measure decoupling legislators' pensions from judges' pay. But the amendment to Senate Bill 1459 was defeated Tuesday.

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Bidness as Usual

This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.

Updated May 21, 11:30 a.m.: 

During the third reading of Senate Bill 1459 on Tuesday, state Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, attempted again to add a measure delinking legislators' pensions from judges' pay. His proposal would have linked only legislators' pay to the salary of the governor, instead. 

Lawmakers in the House, though, seemed less pleased than Monday, when his proposal received a chilly reception. State Reps. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, suggested that if Isaac did not want to accept the pension, he could choose not to participate.

"If there is a representative on the floor who does not believe they are not working and doing an excellent job that is deserving of pension and retirement, they should voluntarily opt out," Turner said.

Before lawmakers gave final approval to SB 1459, they soundly rejected Isaac's amendment in a 101-32 vote.

Brandi Grissom contributed to this report.

Original story, May 20:

In the span of a few minutes on Monday, the Texas House gave the green light to pension increases for state elected officials and then watched the effort to ban “double dipping” by politicians crash and burn without a vote.

The measures were contained in two separate amendments to Senate Bill 1459, a pension overhaul bill designed to shore up the Employees Retirement System (ERS) of Texas.

“Clearly, people want to keep the system the way it is, and it’s probably not a great signal to the public,” said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, author of the double dipping amendment, which he withdrew.

An amendment by Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, would have had the effect of denying a pension increase to members of the Legislature. 

Lawmaker pensions are based on the salary of a state district judge, currently at $125,000 but set to rise in the budget to $140,000. That increase in turn would give all current and future retirees from the Legislature a pension hike.

Isaac’s amendment would have decoupled the two and would have instead tied lawmaker’s pensions to a percentage of the governor’s salary ($150,000), leaving the amount used to calculate a lawmaker’s pension at $125,000 as it is right now.

The House turned down the amendment on a vote of 84-59, thereby giving its collective blessing to the increase. Isaac said he felt dejected but also said some lawmakers would have a hard time defending their vote against his amendment come election time.

“We weren’t sent here for the pensions,” Isaac said. “I just don’t want to be seen as increasing the pension that I may or may not receive.” He said he did not want to vote for a budget that contains an increase in his own future pension income.

The practice of double dipping was brought to light during Gov. Rick Perry’s failed run for president. In late 2011, Perry revealed on federal disclosure forms that he had taken advantage of an unusual perk reserved exclusively for longtime state elected officials. It has allowed him to draw both his $150,000-a-year state salary and a $92,000 annual pension. 

Turner’s standalone measure to remove that perk from the law, House Bill 413, had died in committee for lack of support, but he had vowed to try again with an amendment to legislation that was moving. However, at the urging of the House sponsor of the underlying pension reform bill, Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Houston, Turner decided to pull his amendment down without a vote Monday. 

SB 1459, which Callegari sponsored, is designed to shore up the long-term viability of the state employee pension system by gradually increasing the state contribution rate and taking steps to strengthen the actuarial soundness of the system.

Turner deferred to Callegari, saying he was not “willing to risk” failure of the bill, with just a week left in the session, in order to pass the double-dipping ban.

So it's dead for the session.

“It will be the first bill I file in the next legislative session if I have the privilege of returning,” Turner said.

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State government Chris Turner Governor's Office Jason A. Isaac Rick Perry Texas Legislature