This is one in a series of occasional stories about ethics and transparency in the part-time Texas Legislature.
Starting Sept. 1, several members of Texas’ congressional delegation will start getting more take-home pay — though their salaries technically won’t change.
Twelve members of the delegation receive state- or county-funded pensions for positions they previously held in state or county government, in addition to the $174,000-plus salaries they get for serving in Congress. And 10 of those pensions, which are based on state district judges’ salaries, are about to grow because the Texas Legislature recently voted to boost those judges’ pay from $125,000 to $140,000.
The practice of collecting a state-funded pension and a public salary, often referred to as "double dipping," gained national attention during Gov. Rick Perry’s failed 2012 presidential campaign, when he disclosed that he was receiving both a $150,000-a-year salary for serving as governor and an annual pension of more than $90,000. (State ethics forms don’t require the disclosure of pension income.) Though double-dipping is legal, critics often label it as an inefficient use of state funds or an unfair difference between public officials and those who use private insurance plans. Others say the practice is a fair way to compensate officials who have left a state office.
Lawmakers probably won’t outlaw double dipping any time soon, because they are “generally loathe to change rules that benefit themselves,” said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Sloan called the practice “distressing” and “shady,” because many politicians often attack pension benefits for other groups or propose limiting them to balance budgets.
But Craig McDonald, director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, said he saw no issue with representatives receiving pension benefits as long as they have left state employment.
“It’s just a way the retirement marketplace works out,” McDonald said.
The pension increase — which amounts to about a 12 percent hike — will go into effect with the new state budget in September.
Double-dipping is likely prominent across the country, Sloan said, adding that there are probably "a fair number of congressmen and governors" who collect benefits from previous elected positions.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, who received a $51,682 pension last year for his service in the Texas House and Senate, said the pensions are “something we’ve earned for our work earlier.”
“I come from a district where people work hard, and you work hard to earn your pension benefits,” Green said. Under the previous budget, he was eligible for a pension of at least $57,500, which would now increase to $64,400.
Congressmen can also receive less then the pension they are eligible for if they opt for a deferrment plan that delays benefits for their survivors to later receive.
In a statement on his pension, U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, didn’t offer an opinion on whether double-dipping is a fair practice, but he said he is “thankful Williamson County allowed” him to work as a district judge.
“For the community to continue to trust me and hire me to serve them in Congress has been a privilege,” said Carter, who received $76,458.6 last year for his pension.
Of the Republicans in the state congressional delegation who receive pensions, Carter reported collecting the most benefits in 2012.
No other members of Texas’ congressional delegation responded to multiple requests for comment.
A June 17 article in National Journal singled out U.S. Sen. John Cornyn for receiving state-funded pensions in 2012 for his work on the state Supreme Court, as a district judge and as attorney general. In 2012, Cornyn reported receiving $48,807 from the Texas Judicial Retirement System, $10,132 from the Employees Retirement System of Texas and $6,444 from the Texas County and District Retirement System.
In addition to Green, other congressional Texas Democrats who received state pension benefits in 2012 include U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas and Lloyd Doggett of Austin. U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, who was first elected to Congress last November, will collect pension benefits on top of his salary this year, though he has not had to report previous years’ earnings. Of that group, Doggett collected the most money, reporting $64,906.
In addition to Cornyn and Carter, Texas congressional Republicans who received pension benefits in 2012 included U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston, Ralph Hall of Rockwall and Kenny Marchant of Coppell.
Those 10 will receive increased benefits under the new budget. Here's a look:
|Lawmaker||Former Position(s)||Currently Receiving||Previously Eligible (Minimum)||Now Eligible (Minimum)|
|John Carter||District judge - 20 years||$76,459||$57,500||$64,400|
|John Cornyn||District Judge - 6 years, Texas Supreme Court - 7 years, Texas Attorney General - 4 years||$6,444 (County and District), $7,634 (ERS), $48,807 (Judicial)||$52,900||$59,248|
|John Culberson||Texas House - 14 years||$26,983||$40,250||$45,080|
|Henry Cuellar||Texas House - 14 years||$38,563||$40,250||$45,080|
|Lloyd Doggett||Texas Senate - 12 years Texas Supreme Court - 5 years||$64,906||$51,750||$57,960|
|Pete Gallego||Texas House - 22 years||Not reported||$63,250||$70,840|
|Gene Green||Texas House, Texas Senate - total of 20 years||$51,682||$57,500||$64,400|
|Ralph Hall||County Judge - 12 years, Texas Senate - 10 years||$65,748||$28,750 + County||$32,200 + County|
|Eddie Bernice Johnson||Texas House, Texas Senate - total of 10 years||$35,000||$28,750||$32,200|
|Kenny Marchant||Texas House - 17 years||$36,000||$48,875||$54,740|
U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who gets a county pension based on his previous work as a county judge, receives benefits calculated independently of the district judge salary. Republican Rep. Ted Poe of Humble receives pensions based on his tenure as a county prosecutor and county judge, which are also calculated independently of district judge salaries.
County pensions are calculated based on a formula involving contributions previously made by both the officeholders and the counties that employed them, said Cathy Terrell, communications director for the Employees Retirement System of Texas.
Pension benefits for a former state elected official are based on a minimum 2.3 percent of a district judge’s salary, multiplied by the official’s years of service. If an official’s salary is higher than a judge’s, the benefits can be calculated using that salary instead.
McDonald said basing pension benefits on the judge’s salary is problematic, though he said it isn’t “the worst thing in the world.”
“It’s a way to hide accountability for pension decisions,” he said, adding that legislators can vote to increase their pensions without their constituents realizing it.
Former state elected officials can receive larger pension benefits if the county their service affected pays them additional money of if they purchased additional years of benefits or served in the military, Terrell said.
State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, filed a bill last session that would have prohibited future state officeholders from drawing on pensions until they actually retired. The bill never made it out of committee.
Turner attempted to reintroduce that ban in the form of an amendment to Senate Bill 1459, but he ultimately withdrew the amendment. State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, attempted to introduce legislation that would remove the link between district judge pay and legislator pensions, but it was rejected.