NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

State Lawmakers Pump Up Pensions

September 28, 2011

More than 4,100 legislators in 33 states are positioned to benefit from special retirement laws that they and their predecessors have enacted to boost their pensions by up to $100,000 a year, a USA Today investigation found.  Even as legislators cut basic state services and slash benefits for police, teachers and other workers, they have preserved pension laws that grant themselves perks unavailable to voters they serve or workers they direct.

Because each state's legislature that has indulged itself with these policies does so in different, evermore creative ways, comparative analysis is difficult.  However, state-by-state examination yields shocking results:

  • State lawmakers in Missouri meet for roughly five months a year and are paid slightly more on average than a state worker, but records show a typical lawmaker's pension averages 30 percent more than a state worker's.
  • New York has barred legislators elected after 1994 from receiving legislative pension payments while in office, but this leaves 15 lawmakers who took office before 1995 collecting a legislative pension in addition to their salary (earnings average $154,000 each year).
  • Though the Texas legislator salary ($7,200) hasn't risen since 1975, pensions are tied to the salary made by Texas trial judges, which has nearly tripled since 1981, allowing one state legislator to receive pension payments equivalent to 17 times his salary.

Though the specific policies and schemes in each state are different, the results are strikingly similar: state legislators across the country compensate themselves with exceptional generosity in belt-tightening, budget-cutting times of economic woe.  These lavish systems mean that at least 570 lawmakers in 19 states have qualified for pensions that will pay them as much as (and in many cases, more than) their base legislative salaries.  While many of these legislators are concentrated in only a few states, the national repercussions are substantial, as that figure represents nearly 10 percent of the 5,900 lawmakers in the 40 states with legislative pensions.

Source: Thomas Frank, "How State Lawmakers Pump Up Pensions in Ways You Can't," USA Today, September 24, 2011.

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