House committee rejects bills to allow public retirees to serve in Legislature, draw pension

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn during Legislative session at the Mississippi State Capitol Tuesday, February 4, 2020.

Bills to allow public employee retirees to serve in the Legislature and draw their pension were defeated overwhelmingly Wednesday afternoon in the House Appropriations Committee.

Most members of the Republican majority voted against the bills.

The defeat of the bills was a stinging setback for three public employee retirees elected to the House in the November general election after the Public Employees Retirement System Board changed its regulations to say retirees could serve in the Legislature and draw their pension and a portion of their legislative pay. Despite the PERS change, which was based on an opinion by the Attorney General’s office, the House under the leadership of Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, has argued the PERS decision conflicted with existing state law and has refused to reduce the pay of the public employee retirees so they could draw their pension.

Asked after the Appropriations Committee meeting if they were going to continue to serve, the three, Billy Andrews of Purvis, Jerry Darnell of Hernando, and Dale Goodin of Richton, all Republicans, said they did not know.

“I may resign today,” quipped Andrews, though, he did not.

A fourth public employee elected in November – Ramona Blackledge of Jones County – already has resigned saying she could not afford to lose her pension, which she said she had earned through 40 years of working for the county.

The speaker has argued that allowing the members to serve and draw their pension conflicted with existing state law. He also argued it was “double dipping” to receive a legislative salary and a pension for their public service.

Andrews and other public retirees have pointed out that public retirees can go back to work for the state part-time and continue to draw their pension and so legislators also should have that option.

In committee, Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said that allowing public employees to serve and draw their pension may mean retired teachers and state employees might be running against legislators, but he said the competition was all right.

Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Manatchie, who voted against the bills in the Appropriations Committee, said he is worried about the negative financial impact on the retirement system if the public retirees are allowed to return to work as legislators.

The PERS Board has said during recent meetings that the change in regulation would not have a negative financial  impact. But board members have stated they would rescind the regulation if it is opposed by the Internal Revenue Service. Public retirees are allowed in other states to serve in the Legislature and draw their pension.

“You have 110,000 (public) retirees,” Goodin said. “You are saying to a whole class of people we don’t want you.”

One bill defeated would have stated specifically that legislators could waive their salary or part of it while serving in the Legislature. Gunn has pointed out language in state law mandating legislators receive their full salary.

The other bill would have gone further than the PERS regulation to allow legislators over age 62 to draw their legislative pension and continue to serve in the state House or Senate.