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One-third of Texas' Congressmembers double-dip with public pensions

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News,Watchdog,Jennifer Peebles

The following story was published today by Texas Watchdog, where I used to work. It was written by my former colleague Steve Miller. We're republishing it here under a Creative Commons license.

Of Texas' 34-member Congressional delegation, 12 are taking a pension from a public retirement plan, according to financial disclosures filed by the politicians.

Among the best compensated in the pack is Republican Ted Poe, 63, a former prosecutor and judge in Harris County whose district includes Kingwood and Beaumont, who reported dual pension payments in 2011; he was paid $82,153 by Harris County, Texas, and $57,229 by the Texas County and District Retirement System.

U.S. reps, many of them former state elected officials, receive a congressional salary of $174,000. They are not prohibited from taking their taxpayer-subsidized retirement while serving in Washington.

Steve Ellis, with the D.C. watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, says public pensions make elected officials that much more out-of-touch with the retirement realities of private-sector workers, whose plans are usually packaged as defined contributions to a 401(k) or IRA.

"The public derides career politicians, but that's what a pension is generally for, rewarding someone for a career's worth of work," Ellis said. "At some point you have to question whether elected officials should be receiving pensions at all."

Members of the delegation draw on a number of retirement programs established for state employees, most through the Employees Retirement System of Texas.

Cities also offer a pension plan, usually under the Texas Municipal Retirement System. Counties use the Texas County and District Retirement System. State judges, the Texas Judicial Retirement System.

All but one, the Municipal system, are tapped by at least one member of the state's delegation.

Rep. Al Green, a Democrat from Houston and a former justice of the peace in Harris County, reported a pension payment in 2011 of $96,948 from the Texas County and District Retirement System.

John Carter, a Republican from the Austin area, served as a district judge for 20 years in Williamson County. He has received generous payments from the Texas Judicial Retirement System. According to his financial disclosure, Carter, 70, last year received a pension of $76,458from the judicial system. Carter, who has spoken out against other forms of perceived judicial and legal abuse, has drawn a pension payment every year since taking office in 2003, totaling $693,162.

Other lawmakers reporting state pension income in 2011 were Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall, who listed$65,748 in income; John Culberson, R-Houston, $26,983; Gene Green, D-Houston, $51,862; and Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, $35,000. Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison reported$23,774, also from a state plan.

Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, a former Houston City Council member, noted on her disclosure form that she is vested in the city's plan but has not yet received a benefit.

Some lawmakers listed their pensions as assets, for which the member is required to report the value in a broad range and, if income was generated in that year, the amount.

Two lawmakers disclosed their pensions in this way but did not report receiving payments.

Republican Kevin Brady, a former state rep from the Woodlands whose U.S. district takes in part of suburban Houston and Beaumont, listed his state pension valued at $15,001 to $50,000 in 2010.

Charlie Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Antonio, last year reported pensions worth between $50,001 and $100,000 from the Employees Retirement System of Texas and between $15,001 and $50,000 from the Texas County and District Retirement System. Gonzalez spent time as a state district judge and a state district judge before being elected to Congress in 1999.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn also listed a pension for the first time in 2011 worth $50,001 to $100,000 from the Employees Retirement System of Texas. He reported taking a $10,131 distribution. Cornyn was a state district judge and a member of the Texas Supreme Court before he was elected state Attorney General in 1998. He won his Senate seat in 2002.

Ellis, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, sees a distinction in the public's mind between double-dipping by members of Congress in state or local plans and workers who are taking two checks from the same level of government.

For example, Gov. Rick Perry was discovered in December to have been drawing his state pensionwhile serving in state office - and making a short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

"I think some of the noise about Gov. Perry was that it was state pension & state salary," Ellis said. "Especially considering it is a state or local pension - which they would be owed no matter what their job was - Congressman, plumber, or dog-catcher - it becomes harder to go after. At some point it does seem excessive, that they are able to feed at the various public troughs."

The federal-state double dip is "hard to justify," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer rights group.

"It's become more problematic up and down the level of bureaucracy, where members of Congress or high state officials like Gov. Perry do this kind of stuff," Smith said. "Then it becomes OK for executives in state agencies to retire and then go back to work as consultants for the agencies they worked for, which is becoming more common."

However distasteful double-dipping may be, it would be hard to ban.

"The situation isn't any different, technically, from a teacher receiving pension payments from Texas and doing some part-time or full-time teaching in another state," said Ron Snell, who studies state pensions for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"Given the general understanding that a pension is deferred compensation -- compensation a person has already earned by employment but that has been deferred from the time of service until later -- it would be difficult to construct state law to prohibit the practice."

It would take a federal law to prohibit the state-federal double dip, which, Smith said, "I don't expect to happen in my lifetime."

More information about lawmakers' finances in 2011 will trickle out over the summer. Nine members from Texas requested extensions to get in their paperwork, according to Legistorm.

Most of the former state lawmakers in Congress receiving state pensions introduced bills during their time in Austin regarding retirement benefits.

Rep. Kenny Marchant, a state rep from 1987 to 2004, in 1997 authored a pension bill that would have based lawmakers' pensions on starting teacher's salaries. The bill failed. Marchant, R-Coppell, in 2010 received a $35,000 state pension. In 2010, he was determined to be the 17th wealthiest member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Laredo Democrat Henry Cuellar, a state rep from 1987 to 2001 who received $38,596 last yearfrom the Employee Retirement System of Texas, pitched a bill in 1997 that would have given county court at law judges credit toward a state pension. He also authored a 1991 bill to allow communications officers with the Department of Public Safety qualify for the same benefits as troopers. Both failed.

Lloyd Doggett, who served in the state Senate from 1973 to 1985, authored a bill in 1979 that would allow state employees to take their accrued sick pay in a lump sum. The bill, which was determined to cost taxpayers up to $6 million a year, went nowhere.

Doggett, though, also authored a joint resolution that was adopted and asserts a retiree cannot collect "from more than one system for the same service, but the legislature may provide by law that a person with service covered by more than one system or program is entitled to a fractional benefit from each system or program..."

Doggett, D-Austin, listed income of $64,906 in 2010 from his state pension.

Texas Watchdog's review found Republicans and Democrats alike double-dipping.

Smith, of Public Citizen, pointed out that conservatives have been most outspoken on the problems caused by public pensions, "and you can't have it both ways.

"You can't be openly critical of people doing what you're doing," he said. "It's part of why people are so distrustful of their elected officials, and it exemplifies that public service is abused by those at the highest level of government."

Members of Congress are also able to participate in the federal pension system and are vested after five years of service.

Lawmakers who are 62 or older with five years of service or 50 or older with 20 years of service are able to take a full pension. Lawmakers with 25 years of service qualify for full pension benefits as well, no matter their age. Amounts are based on their time of service, age at retirement and which plan they are in. A detailed assessment of the system can be seen here.

Ron Paul, the Libertarian congressman from east Texas, proclaimed in 1997 that he would never take a federal pension. He does take $104,516 a year in benefits from the private pension he set up when he was a practicing physician.

Double-dip ice cream cone picture by flickr user Marshall Astor, used under a Creative Commons license.

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