Sen. Norwood: AG opinion rights ‘wrong and unfair’ rule barring retirees from legislative service

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Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, questions the changes in House Bill House 957, an education funding formula, during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

When Sollie Norwood decided to run in a state Senate special election in 2013, he knew if he won he would be making a financial sacrifice.

But Norwood, who worked over 30 years for the Department of Human Services, felt he had a lot to offer in helping craft policy for the state as a member of the Mississippi Legislature.

In the end, Norwood ran and won the special election to replace long-time Sen. Alice Harden, D-Jackson, who died in office.

Norwood said he never regretted the decision, though, he loses money as a member of the Mississippi Legislature because he is not allowed to draw his state retirement while serving in the Legislature.

But a recent opinion of Attorney General Jim Hood’s office could change that. The opinion said Norwood and other retired state and local government workers, including public school employees, should be able to serve in the Legislature while still receiving their monthly Public Employees Retirement System check.

“We have educators and others in government who have a lot to offer,” said Norwood, who made the official request for Hood’s office to explore the issue. “It is wrong and unfair to say they cannot serve in the policy-making arena.”

A regulation of PERS’ Board of Trustees for years has kept retired state government employees from drawing their pensions while in elected office. The AG’s opinion said that regulation conflicts with state law.

In an emailed response, Ray Higgins, PERS’ executive director, said, his agency “is aware of the recently released AG’s opinion. However, we had no prior input in this matter. Due to the importance of PERS, our regulations and their potential impact on the system and its members, this item requires thorough consideration prior to taking action or commenting further. The AG’s opinion is under review by the agency leadership.”

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Attorney General Jim Hood

Attorney general opinions do not carry the force of law. But official AG opinions provide legal protection for governmental entities that follow them.

It is likely that at some point the PERS Board of Trustees will strongly consider changing the regulation based on the AG’s opinion.

Most employees of state and local governments, public K-12 and university employees, participate in PERS, contributing 9 percent of their salary for retirement benefits. Under state law, retirees can resume working for a governmental entity after being retired for 90 days and still draw their monthly check from PERS as long as they work “no more than half-time or the PERS retiree’s income from the re-employment does not exceed 25 percent of his or her former compensation.”

But a long-standing PERS’ rule said that any elected office is considered full-time, which precludes retired state workers from pursuing state legislative seats.

The AG opinion, though, pointed out that legislative offices are considered part-time posts since many members of the state House and Senate work other full-time jobs, such as farmers, funeral home directors, attorneys and insurance brokers. The opinion notes that those legislators are not punished.

“Legislators who divide their time between their legislative duties and their private sector employment are not subjected to a penalty or forfeiture of their non-legislative salary or benefits,” the AG opinion reads.

The AG opinion pointed out that a person drawing $12,000 per year in PERS benefits would lose $48,000 over a four-year legislative term. According to PERS data, the average benefit is more than $23,100 for the more than 100,000 people drawing benefits. In total, according to the AG opinion, more than 300,000 are in the PERS system either drawing benefits, having paid into the system or currently paying into the system.

Educators, in particular, have hailed the AG opinion.

In a statement on its web page, the Mississippi Association of Educators said retired educators in other states have been impactful serving in legislatures, school boards and “in many offices in between. Here in Mississippi, however, we’ve been led to believe that wasn’t an option…because it would mean losing access to hard-earned pensions.”

The association added the AG’s opinion gives Mississippi educators “an opportunity to join the nationwide movement to ensure educators have a voice at the table.”