Speaker Philip Gunn said that Attorney General Jim Hood’s opinion that retired state employees could collect their pension and serve in the Legislature is flawed. 

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, predicted that the next attorney general will reverse or at least alter the official opinion issued by the office of Attorney General Jim Hood saying that retired public school teachers and state employees can serve in the Legislature while drawing their pension.

Gunn said recently the ruling, issued late last year, was flawed.

“We all know there will be a new attorney general next year,” Gunn said, referring to the fact Hood is running for governor in this year’s election. “…I suspect the next attorney general will reverse the ruling or issue a clarification.”

Hood’s ruling late last year created a buzz. Some education supporters, in particular, envisioned that the ruling would result in more pro-education retired teachers running and winning legislative seats.

The AG opinion apparently also created a buzz among the Republican legislative leadership based on the correspondence they had with the administrators of the retirement system. The correspondence of legislators has long been exempt from the state’s public records laws, but Mississippi Today was able to obtain that correspondence through a public records request to the Public Employees Retirement System.

This week, Mississippi Today joins news organizations across the country in marking Sunshine Week, an annual initiative to draw attention to the importance of open government and access to public information.

Emails and others correspondence reveal that numerous key Republican legislators, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Gunn, and their staff all were receiving updates on how the PERS Board of Trustees might change its regulations to adhere to the AG’s opinion. The correspondence did not reveal any instances of the legislative leaders trying to influence the PERS Board, though, some people were fearful that might happen.

Hood said the emails prove that the law should be changed so that legislators are not exempt from the public records law.

Attorney General Jim Hood says the PERS Board decision to adopt new regulations won’t change with the election of a new AG. 

“These communications clearly show why legislators should be subject to the Open Records Act like all other state and local elected officials,” he said “They should have to list those with whom they meet on legislation or who wines and dines them.”

On Jan. 30 in text messages, Lee Ann Robinson, who is a budget analyst for the House, told Davetta Lee, an attorney and policy adviser for the PERS Board, “The speaker would like to see you now.”

And in a Jan. 22 email Barrie Nelson, a scheduler for Reeves, communicates with Mary Jones, of the PERS’ staff, to schedule a meeting between the lieutenant governor and PERS Executive Director Ray Higgins to discuss the possible change in regulations to allow public sector retirees to serve in the Legislature and draw their pension.

When asked about Reeves’ involvement, spokesperson Laura Hipp, said, “The PERS board is working on regulations that adhere to federal law and maintain the health of the plan, and Lt. Gov. Reeves looks forward to seeing what they produce.”

When the ruling from Hood’s office first came out there was talk among education groups that it could attract more retired teachers and other retired state employees to run for the Legislature and result in a more education-friendly Legislature. But early reports show that only a handful of retirees qualified to run for legislative seats by the March 1 deadline.

The fact that the PERS Board passed a resolution in a February special meeting saying their plan was to adhere to the AG’s opinion by Jan. 1, 2020, with the start of a new legislative term as long as the change did not conflict with federal tax law might have damped the enthusiasm of some retired educators to run for a House or Senate seat. If for some reason, the PERS Board opted not to change the regulation, it could leave them having to decide whether to serve in the Legislature without drawing their pension or decide not to serve in an office after winning the election.

Legislative leaders who were involved in the correspondence also included Ways and Means Chair Jeff Smith of Columbus, House Appropriations Chair John Read of Gautier, Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden of Meridian and Reps. Jim Beckett of Bruce, Hank Zuber of Ocean Springs, Mark Barker of Brandon and Trey Lamar of Senatobia. All are Republican. Baker is running for attorney general and both Hood and Reeves are seeking their party’s nomination in the governor’s race.

Those legislators who were interviewed by Mississippi Today said they were not trying to influence the decision of the PERS Board but were concerned with problems with the AG opinion.

For instance, Gunn said he is concerned because of conflicts in law that would be created if retirees are allowed to serve in the Legislature and draw their pension. He pointed out one law saying that public sector retirees can receive only half of their salary if they return to work for the state and another law saying that legislators must receive their salary.

The PERS Board in its special meeting when it voted to work toward a Jan. 1 ruling that the retirees could serve and draw their pension did not rule on that issue. There is a theory, though, that legislators are considered part-time so they could draw their full legislative salary anyway. But Gunn also points to another law saying for the purpose of the retirement system legislators are considered full-time.

“I am all for more quality people being able to serve in the Legislature. Period, I guess I will say,” Lamar said. “But there are some potential legal issues…I don’t have all the answers as we sit here right now. But there seems to be some conflict with state law.”

In correspondence, the PERS administrators agreed to update the legislators on what the Board did in the February special meeting about the issue.

Of Gunn’s prediction that the opinion would be changed, Hood said, “The PERS Board voted overwhelmingly to move forward with adopting regulations effective at the start of the 2020 legislative session that would allow state retirees to serve in the Legislature without forfeiting their hard-earned retirement. This won’t change with a new AG. I support everyone’s right to run, and I think people who have worked as public servants for the state would make great lawmakers. You’d think others would value the continued service of our retired teachers, law enforcement, and so many other state employees.”

An AG opinion does not carry the weight of law, but it provides protection from lawsuits  for public officials who follow it.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.