Senate votes to remove salary caps for two PERS leaders

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Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves presides over the Mississippi Senate.

After tense debate and a legal snag, the Senate passed a bill Thursday that would remove statutory caps on salaries for two leaders of the state’s employee retirement agency.

The bill, which updates and cleans up numerous code sections dealing with the Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS), removes the cap for the PERS executive director and chief investment officer.

Proponents of the measure – both Republicans and Democrats – said the salary caps put Mississippi’s retirement agency at a disadvantage, disallowing the state from hiring qualified and capable administrators who might be paid more in other states. But opponents of the bill said the proposal would contradict other measures passed this session to tighten the state’s spending.

Mississippi Senate

Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton

“We should pay these officials a comparable salary that shows the worth of a $26 billion industry,” said Sen. Barbara Blackmon, D-Canton. “We want to be able to protect our retirees and attract the best possible candidates for these positions. We’re headed in the right direction, and we want to continue that direction.”

Just five senators – Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, Sen. Angela Hill, R-Picayune, and Sen. Mike Seymour, R-Vancleave – voted against the measure on final passage.

Hill opposed the measure, citing funding issues with PERS programs in recent years.

“I have a sister who is a public school teacher,” Hill said. “If she lives long enough, her retirement may run out. Throwing an unlimited salary at the director is not going to save PERS … This state has got to wake up and realize we have to think about things before we do them.”

Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, initially opposed the measure on the floor Thursday, saying he “didn’t want to write a blank check for someone we don’t even know.” After a lunch break while Senate attorneys handled a legal question, Tindell said on the floor he would vote for the bill after learning the salary cap for the director.

According to information obtained by a Mississippi Today public records request, PERS Executive Director Pat Robertson makes $183,240 a year, which is the highest salary allowed by state law (150 percent of the governor’s salary). PERS Chief Investment Officer Lorrie Tingle makes $155,000 a year.

In a Senate Finance committee meeting on Wednesday, Robertson gave lawmakers the salary range for the jobs set by the state Personnel Board. For the PERS executive director position, Robertson said, the salary ranges from $141,000 to $183,000 per year. The national average for that position, Robertson said, is $263,900.

For the PERS chief investment officer position, the Personnel Board range is between $120,000 and $217,000 per year. The median national salary for comparable positions, Robertson said, is $327,800.

Robertson, who has led the state agency since 2005, announced plans to retire next year. She said on Wednesday the bill would not affect her salary.

At one point during the two-hour debate Thursday morning, sports analogies (football, basketball and baseball) flowed through the chamber floor to illustrate points.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven

“You want to keep salary cap in place? How much do we pay our football coaches in Mississippi from state funds?” Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, asked rhetorically on the floor. “I understand they receive about $400,000 in state funds. If football is that important to this state, certainly the management of retirees is important enough.”

Sen. Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, argued against removing the salary cap and introduced two amendments that would keep the cap in place. One of his amendments, which would have touched on the state superintendent of education salary was challenged by Sen. Willie Simmons, D-Cleveland, on an inquiry of the chair.

To handle that challenge, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves called a lunch recess for the item to be sorted out.

“I know there’s some differences in opinion about PERS, but I cannot imagine anybody anywhere thinking it’s beneficial not paying comparable salary,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory. “Let’s rely on the Personnel Board itself to determine a fair salary to make sure it’s in line with similar salaries everywhere.

“In short, I don’t think you move forward with cheap help,” Bryan said.