USA Today plays up SC lawmaker pensions

Cindi Scoppe just got a little help.

For years, Cindi has been writing at least annually about the outrageous pensions that SC lawmakers give themselves. She just got some reinforcement in that crusade, with a front-page story in USA Today, which begins:

At age 55, South Carolina state Sen. David Thomas began collecting a pension for his legislative service without leaving office.

Most workers must retire from their jobs before getting retirement benefits. But Thomas used a one-sentence law that he and his colleagues passed in 2002 to let legislators receive a taxpayer-funded pension instead of a salary after serving for 30 years.

Thomas’ $32,390 annual retirement benefit — paid for the rest of his life — is more than triple the $10,400 salary he gave up. His pension exceeds the salary because of another perk: Lawmakers voted to count their expenses in the salary used to calculate their pensions.

No other South Carolina state workers get those perks.

Since January 2005, Thomas, a Republican, has made $148,435 more than a legislative salary would have paid, his financial-disclosure records show. At least four other South Carolina lawmakers are getting pensions instead of salaries, netting an extra $292,000 since 2005, records show.

And so forth and so on.

Increasingly, national media are discovering just how wild and wacky South Carolina is. On the one hand, it’s embarrassing. On the other, it’s nice to get the attention.

Who knows? Maybe the added exposure will help here at home. After all, last year, laudatory national coverage got Nikki Haley elected governor.

Expect Cindi to write about it more.

22 thoughts on “USA Today plays up SC lawmaker pensions

  1. bud

    Regular state employees don’t get the great deal that our legislators get but it is pretty good. Let’s hope they don’t through out the baby with bathwater and greatly reduce the value of state worker pensions to address the extravagence of the general assembly folks. Heck knowing them they’ll throw out the baby and keep the smelly bath water.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Y’know, the paper noted that retirees may only get 1% COLA this year, instead of 2%. My husband hasn’t had any COLA for 8? years….and then to find out that the David Thomases of the world, to use Sanford’s phrase, are getting enormous pensions whil still working?

  3. Steven Davis

    Look at the updated article on USA Today where it gives a breakdown state-by-state. Several states don’t even give pensions to legislators.

  4. Doug Ross

    Amazing… and there’s no way to tie this one to Haley or Sanford.

    I’m sure Bobby Harrell and Hugh Leatherman get nice Christmas cards from the legislators they hand out gifts to.

    Too bad we don’t have a real newspaper in this city able to stay on this story until the pensions are changed. Can’t do that since there’s a home game for USC this weekend. The State dropped the Ken Ard story and will move on to some other tripe next week.

  5. Brad

    Yep, that’s it, Doug. I don’t know how you figured it out, but that’s it: It’s all Harrell’s and Leatherman’s fault. It’s not the fault of the other 168 legislators at all.

    Me, I would have blamed all of them, but I lack your ability to identify scapegoats.

    I don’t know why we keep having this conversation. I blame governors for what they do and don’t do, and lawmakers for what they do and don’t do. And you always act like there’s something wrong with that. And it’s tiresome.

  6. Doug Ross

    Because you know as well as I do that nothing happens in the legislature without it first being approved by the leaders of the two houses. They get what they want. They trade favors and pull rank to get it.

    To pretend otherwise is wrong.

  7. Brad

    Actually, to pretend it’s that simple is wrong. There are things leaders can do and things they can’t do. Often, they’re following as much as leading.

    A legislature is not a military organization. It’s not a matter of someone giving an order and that’s it. It doesn’t work that way. No, wait — sometimes it IS that simple. To say it NEVER is would be as simplistic as saying it ALWAYS is. I’ve seen it happen that way. That is, I’ve seen it APPEAR to happen that way, because the ways in which a leader exerts influence is generally not as clear-cut as the power of the majority to pass a bill, or the power of the governor to veto that bill.

    Obviously, a leader has influence, each one in different ways (the way it works differs dramatically between the House and the Senate — the House is closer to the hierarchical structure that you seem to picture), and the dynamics of how that influence works varies from situation to situation.

    For instance, the speaker of the House has the power to appoint people to committees, but he does NOT have the power to tell each lawmaker what legislation to pass or in what form. But every lawmaker cares deeply about his committee assignments, and has a strong motivation for doing what the speaker wants.

    Conversely, the speaker depends for re-election each two years on the good will of a majority of House members (there may have been a speaker sometime who only wanted to serve one term, but I don’t remember it). And it can be a shifting majority. Sometimes it’s just a matter of keeping the majority caucus happy. Other times he finds himself having to put together a coalition made up partly of fellow party members, and partly of the opposition, in order to fend off a challenge.

    So individual members always have to calculate the extent to which they need to act to keep the speaker happy, and the speaker has to calculate keeping individual members happy.

    The times when the speaker openly declares, publicly, “Here is what you must do” are rare. I remember when Ned McWherter was speaker in Tennessee, back in the early 80s, he once audibly said something like, “Y’all better get it together before I come down there and rip off some arms and start beating you about the heads and shoulders with them.” But that was interesting not only because it was colorful, but because it was unusual.

    Do speakers openly say that they want to see such-and-such? Of course they do. And sometimes what they say they want actually happens. And some of that is what the speaker wants, and some of it is what the majority caucus wants, and some of it arises from the dynamics on the floor.

    It’s very complicated. They are leaders, and they have more influence than any other individual members, usually. But when you get right down to it, a speaker is still only elected by just as many voters as the lowliest member, and everybody knows it. So members have to be curried, and reasoned with, and threatened, and the whole gamut of the way complex human interactions among more than 100 individuals occur.

    Often, the only thing you know for sure about what happened on a particular bill or resolution or amendment is how the final vote came out.

    A legislature isn’t a machine. It’s a complicated mass of human interaction.

    And I know I’m just typing myself blue in the face here, because you think like an engineer, so nevermind…

  8. Ralph Hightower

    It’s incredible that Dave Thomas was able to triple his legislative salary by not taking it and “retiring” instead.

    That’s fundamentally, morally, and ethically wrong! Cheating the citizens of South Carolina to fatten their wallets!

  9. Norm Ivey

    “Who knows? Maybe the added exposure will help here at home.”

    I think not. Generally speaking, the attitude of South Carolinians towards outsiders has always been I-95 runs both north AND south out of the state. Take your pick.

  10. Juan Caruso

    @Steven Davis

    “Several states don’t even give pensions to legislators.”

    Key questions are:

    How many states besides SC give pensions to part-time legiskators?

    Why will we never know who sponsor the bill authorizing this travesty?


    “Often, the only thing you know for sure about what happened on a particular bill or resolution or amendment is how the final vote came out.”

    Thanks to Nikki Haley.

  11. Brad

    Well, thanks to a lot of people who wanted roll-call voting.

    But that’s not actually what I was referring to. I meant you knew how the vote came out — whether it passed or not. That’s the one thing that’s fully clear.

  12. Mark Stewart

    Dave Thomas. Where’s the beef?

    From the perspective of the rest of us it’s all lard.

    Writing a self-serving law that enables a legislator to be paid a pension on taxpayer-paid expenses would be considered fraud in any other setting. Should be here, too. And subject to claw back. Illegal is illegal, wether one writes the law or not. There is no protection for graft. Or shouldn’t be in a situation like this.

  13. Juan Caruso

    @ Brad

    Can we be slightly more accurate than, “Well, thanks to a lot of people who wanted roll-call voting.”

    It was really thanks to the lot of voters who voted for Nikki.

  14. Brad

    I’m happy to be accurate, but what you posit is the opposite of accuracy. You are recounting the official legend of Nikki Haley as though it were true.

    It’s my estimate that most people who voted AGAINST Nikki were in favor of roll-call voting.

  15. Kathryn Fenner

    FWIW, and I’m quite as disgusted by the evisceration of a once fine newspaper, The State has been on top of this issue far longer and in more depth than USA Today. What we will do when Cindi Scoppe and John Monk are no longer fighting for us, I do not like to ponder.

  16. Karen McLeod

    Haven’t our federal legislators also legislated themselves several very nice perks (retirement, medical insurance, etc).

  17. Brad

    There’s nothing on the federal level that’s anywhere near this disproportionate. (The congressional perks people get worked up about leave me cold, generally. For instance, I believe that it’s quite natural that people who make our nation’s laws, and who have to run back and forth to their districts, should not have to hunt for a parking space at National Airport.)

    Members of Congress, of course, are better compensated — as they should be. For that matter, legislators should be paid more for their time — it would enable a lot of people to serve who cannot afford to now, and broaden perspectives in the General Assembly. But the problem here is that, in relation to the pay and the amount of service, the pension for state lawmakers is just ridiculously disproportionate.

  18. Doug Ross


    Uh, The State has been on the issue for so long and been able to do what about it? Seems like The State lacks any influence to do anything except publish football scores.

    As for the pension, there is a very simple solution. Make it that you can’t get it until you retire. That’s what a pension is for. Except for career politicians feeding from the trough.

  19. Doug Ross

    In fact, The State’s story today on the topic was so sad.

    “The State newspaper has requested a list of serving senators and House members who are receiving retirement benefits from the state plan. However, the (Charleston) Post and Courier said a total of 19 other current senators are drawing similar pensions, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; and Sens. Robert Ford, D-Charleston; John Matthews, D-Orangeburg; and Mike Rose, R-.”

    Read more:

    They asked for the information but let the Post and Courier actually get it first?

  20. Doug Ross

    And are these crooks who are taking a pension while still working also getting the $12,000 expense allowance? That would be perfect. People out of work and these jokers who shouldn’t have to work more than a a couple weeks a year are pulling in $45K to sit around a vote on the state vegetable or honoring Little League baseball teams.

    It’s a broken system filled with immoral people.

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