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Why three longtime Texas lawmakers are now eligible for an extra $140,000 a year

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

Why three longtime Texas lawmakers are now eligible for an extra $140,000 a year” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A few of Texas’ most veteran lawmakers may have seen their part-time legislative compensation skyrocket from $7,200 to nearly $150,000 annually, thanks to a law passed quietly at the end of the 2021 legislative session.

Lawmakers with more than 43 years of service are now eligible to collect an annual pension payment of $140,000 from the Employees Retirement System of Texas without having to leave office — supplementing their meager salaries in a practice commonly referred to as double dipping.

Currently, only three state lawmakers qualify outright for the perk: Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, two Houston Democrats who first entered office 50 years ago, in 1973, and Rep. Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican and former House speaker who has been in office for 54 years.

Whitmire, who is running for Houston mayor, said last year he turned down the benefit when he became eligible in late 2021. In January, he again told The Texas Tribune through his office that he had not double dipped into his pension fund. Citing privacy laws, the Employees Retirement System would not provide information about which lawmakers were tapping into the benefit.

Thompson and Craddick have not said if they are taking advantage of the benefit. Neither of their offices responded to multiple requests for comment from the Tribune over several weeks.

It’s possible other lawmakers could be earning the benefit because the Employees Retirement System allows employees, including state lawmakers, to buy or transfer credits for years of service.

Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has taught public administration ethics, said the arrangement has problematic optics.

“It may not be illegal, [lawmakers] may in fact be quietly encouraged by some HR person, but when it comes to the public, it’s the appearance of something that just doesn’t feel right,” he said.

Under the new law, state workers and lawmakers can begin collecting retirement payments while still working, once their pension payments, or annuities, have maxed out based on their years of service with the state. For the typical lawmaker, that takes about 43.5 years.

While state workers have pension payments calculated based on their salaries, lawmakers’ retirement benefits are tied to the salaries of state district judges. That means instead of having an annual pension capped at their $7,200 salary, career lawmakers who serve long enough can earn an annual pension that maxes out at $140,000, which was the base district judge salary in 2022. That cap could increase if the Legislature votes to increase judicial pay.

Lawmakers who retire are eligible to tap into their pensions after eight years of credits if they are over 60 or after 12 years of service if they are over 50, which would yield annual payments of $3,220 per year of service.

Texas legislators serve part time, coming in for regularly scheduled legislative sessions for five months every two years and pulling less than $600 a month in salary for their official state duties.

Many are members of the professional class: lawyers, engineers and physicians. That means, Taylor said, they have other avenues to save for retirement that the average state employee — who usually earns less money than they would receive for the same job in the private sector — does not.

“We’re not talking about the average state employee who could double dip; we’re talking about people who voluntarily got elected to office and decided to run for office,” Taylor said. “The rules are not the same for them.”

In the mid-2010s, the Legislature shut down a loophole that allowed former Gov. Rick Perry to double dip into his salary and pension. But the law change approved last session essentially created a new loophole.

The original version of the bill, Senate Bill 321, authored by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, was meant to address a $15 million unfunded liability in the Employees Retirement System.

But in the House, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, introduced an amendment that would allow state workers and lawmakers older than 60 who have maxed out their annuities to double dip. Only 46 state workers were eligible for the perk, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Almost no one caught the 11th-hour change tacked on in the final days of the legislative session. Bonnen explained the double dipping amendment for one minute and 17 seconds in the chamber before the House approved it on a voice vote, a procedure used for noncontroversial items that don’t have much opposition and don’t require a record vote. He did not mention it would apply to lawmakers, too.

“It literally got snuck in there. If the author of the piece of legislation didn’t know it was in there, what does it tell you?” Taylor said. “It tells you it’s an 11th-hour, backroom, ‘let’s sneak this in in the last days of the Legislature’ deal.”

Bonnen did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Tribune.

The bill returned to the Senate, where lawmakers could either approve the changes or send a bill to a conference committee of the two chambers to hammer out the details before sending it back to both chambers for approval. But by the time the bill was taken up in the Senate, the House was shut down because Democrats had staged a walkout to try to block a bill that would make voting laws in the state more restrictive.

Huffman could either pass the hard-fought legislation to address the pension fund’s debt with the double-dipping provision or kill the bill. She chose to pass the legislation even though it included the double-dipping provision. But she told the Houston Chronicle she intended to file legislation to nix the provision in the next legislative session.

“I do intend next session to file legislation to remove that provision,” Huffman told the newspaper. “Even if someone has had a year of it, then it would stop.”

Huffman, however, has not filed legislation to remove the provision, and her office has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Taylor said removing the provision would be the right move, but it could prove difficult in a chamber of legislators who could stand to benefit from it unless there’s more public pressure.

“It’s a heavy lift,” he said. “Perhaps it’s one of these things where somebody thought, ‘Hey we ought to do this,’ and suddenly it comes to the media and we never hear about it again.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at San Antonio has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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