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Analysis: A Judicious Swipe at Pensions for State Lawmakers

Between now and the next legislative session, Texas lawmakers will be tinkering with an obscure formula that links their own state pensions to the salaries of state judges.

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The most interesting things can get lost in the middle of long paragraphs of government jibber-jabber that send ordinary humans to Dreamland.

Like this paragraph du jour from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s list of interim assignments to Senate committees:

Judicial Matters: Examine the need to adjust Texas judicial salaries to attract, maintain, and support a qualified judiciary capable of meeting the current and future needs of Texas and its citizens. Study and recommend whether Texas should delink legislators' standard service retirement annuities from district judge salaries. Examine the effect of eliminating straight-party voting for candidates for judicial office and make recommendations to ensure candidates are given individual consideration by voters.

This idea is hidden in there: Between now and the next legislative session, Texas lawmakers will tinker with an obscure formula that links their own state pensions to the salaries of state judges. Delinking the two could remove legislative restraints on pay increases for judges, but could also force lawmakers to set their own pensions directly — without hiding behind those judicial robes.

If you’re a judge, or if you’re married to a judge, the first sentence of Patrick’s charge, hinting at pay raises, probably raised your pulse. If you are a party official or a political blogger, the third sentence suggesting more distance between the Democrats and the Republicans and their candidates might have set you off.

The meat in this particular sandwich, however, is right there in the middle, which could change the politics of salaries and pensions for a large number of elected officials, both in the courts and in the state Capitol.

It’s not complicated so much as it is obscure. State employees’ pensions are based, in large measure, on their highest years of salary and the number of years they worked for the state. Calculating a judicial pension is a little less straightforward, but it’s based on years of service, age at retirement and the current salaries of active judges.

Legislative retirement is a bit more creative. Lawmakers make $600 every month. They get paid a daily rate — a per diem — for every day they’re away from their hometowns on state business, like when the Legislature is in session or when they are taking testimony in hearings all over the state. It adds up, but most of them would be making more money doing something else.

The pay stinks, in other words. But the pensions can more than make up for the lousy pay. Lawmakers who serve for at least eight years are eligible for pensions that are based on their years in office and on judicial salaries. District judges in Texas make a minimum of $140,000. The difference between that and the base pay of Texas legislators comes to more than $11,000 per month.

You see what’s going on?

Many, perhaps even most Texas judges make less wearing the robes than they could make working in big law firms. That’s even more true if they’ve been judges for a while and retire and grab a law firm office with a window on the 22nd floor of a fancy downtown tower. The state won’t ever pay what top lawyers make, but judicial salaries should arguably be higher to attract good legal minds.

That’s the trap. Lawmakers who want nothing more than to raise the salaries of judges cannot do so without simultaneously feathering their own pension nests. The ones who want bigger pensions, on the other hand, won’t be seeking public favor anymore after they retire.

Lawmakers raised judicial salaries in 2013, but not as much as judges had hoped. After considering a 21.5 percent increase — the first since 2005 — lawmakers instead gave the judges a 12 percent boost.

Themselves, too: Every lawmaker who voted for the state budget that year also voted to increase the size of his or her own pension — or, in the cases of lawmakers who hadn’t been in office long enough to qualify, for their potential pensions. A retired lawmaker with 20 years in office would have a base pension of $64,400.

Previous efforts to unlink the judges and the lawmakers have fallen short, including one in 2013, the year they last raised judges’ salaries.

Now they’re back at it. Patrick wants senators to study the issue between now and the beginning of the next legislative session in January 2017.

This raises an interesting dilemma for the state’s judges. Do they have a better chance getting raises if lawmakers get a little taste, too? Or have lawmakers held back judicial salaries for fear of looking like they were doing themselves a favor?

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