Cindi Scoppe’s long, lonely battle against legislator pensions

Having brought your attention to the Coble endorsement in the paper today, I am reminded that I meant to point out Cindi Scoppe’s column yesterday. It’s one of the many she has written over the years trying to call attention to the ridiculously generous pensions that South Carolina legislators receive:

If you assume that it’s OK for our part-time legislators to receive a pension — and I don’t, but let’s make the assumption for the sake of simplicity — there still are three problems with the way the special legislative pension system operates:

•  Taxpayers subsidize legislative pensions at more than double the rate we subsidize regular employees’ pensions. For every dollar state legislators put into their system, taxpayers contribute $3.89; for every dollar most state employees contribute, the taxpayers contribute just $1.47.

The result is that, while no one is going to get rich off of a legislative pension, our part-time legislators can draw pensions that are actually larger than the ones received by the average full-time state employee who paid into the system for the same number of years.

•  Legislators are allowed to keep purchasing credit in the system at that same super-subsidized rate even after they leave office — even if voters kicked them out of office.

This is not the same as the program that allows regular state employees to purchase credit for years they worked for other entities in the past, at high rates that will (appropriately) get higher under this legislation. That program also is open to legislators, whose rates likewise will go up — but rarely would legislators want to purchase prior credit, since they get that super deal on future credit.

•  Legislators can elect to stop receiving their salaries and instead collect their pensions while they continue to serve — a benefit that because of that super-subsidy means they can collect a pension of as much as $33,000 instead of a salary of $10,400.

Those first two provisions are unique to the legislative pension system, and they are by far the most generous and most difficult to justify…

Cindi’s been at this for years. Lawmakers give lip service to wanting to do something about it, but somehow that never happens.

25 thoughts on “Cindi Scoppe’s long, lonely battle against legislator pensions

  1. Tim

    The lawmakers are reluctant to remove it, because its one of the few above-board benefits they get. The pay they receive is measly, meaning they are incentivized to remunerate themselves in subterranean ways, including working on legislation that they or their employers can directly benefit from, with little disclosure.

  2. Brad

    I agree with what I think you’re saying. The people who write our laws should receive decent compensation for the time they spend as representatives. So let’s raise their pay. But the ridiculously generous pensions should be cut back or eliminated.

  3. bud

    Why do part time legislators even get a pension? If you work part time for a state agency you don’t earn retirement credit. And while we’re on the subject why do they even need to spend so much town in session to start with? Seems like a couple of months to handle routine business would be more than ample.

  4. Steven Davis II

    On the bright side, most of the people making a living from their legislative pensions are knocking on death’s door by the time they start collecting benefits.

  5. Steven Davis II

    There are states out there which are in better financial shape that only meet every other year. Not in SC, where legislators would stay in session year-round if possible.

  6. Mark Stewart

    Juan may be on to something about attorneys as legislators on this issue.

    Besides the obvious perk of power, the two next best are the generous pension and generous health insurance coverage. Nearly all legislators appear to be self-employed. Character trait overlap doesn’t go as far in explaining this feeding from the public trough as does the ability to acquire otherwise costly benefits more often out of reach to the self-employed.

    The state would have to pay large salaries to equate to the after-tax benefits of being able to salt away $40,000+ per year in the pension plan plus provide what would probably otherwise cost at least $15-20,000 per year out-of-pocket for the health insurance benefits for a family. The peace of mind obtained from knowing one is covered for heathcare alone makes it a lot easier to continue to toil away at a high income/high risk career.

    The benefits of benefits extend far beyond the face value of the benefits.

  7. Ralph Hightower

    “There’s something rotten in Denmark”, er, Columbia with apologies to Bill Shakespeare.

    I don’t know if Cindi can make a dent or not.

    What are the Tea Bagger’s stand on this?

    Curtis Loftis is shaking the tree of the retirement system.

    Maybe something will get done. The the legislators are serving themselves, not the citizens of South Carolina.

  8. Juan Caruso

    The veil may finally have been pierced and the tortoise-like pace cannot decelerate. Standby, it only becomes more obvious from here.

  9. Silence

    @SDII – I think that the legislature can start receiving their pensions while they are still legislating and receiving their legislative pay- which is one of the problems. They aren’t knocking on death’s door at all.

    @ Tim – Even raising legislative salaries wouldn’t fix this problem. You can’t (shouldn’t) pay them enough to spend 1/2 the year at the statehouse, and most of them aren’t doing it for the salary/pension money. They do it to promote their law practice, to get beneficial contracts for their family and friends, because they love power, or in rare instances, because they think they can help.

    There’s really no good way to pry the state legislature from the hands of the idle, the wealthy dilletantes, and those that would go mainly to pursue personal gain. It’s unfotunate. Most decent people can’t or won’t make the sacrifices required for service, especially those that live outside of Columbia.

  10. Tim

    No one cares about it enough to vote folks out of office. In fact, most people probably don’t know who their legislator is. Judging by the number, or lack of, commenters on the State’s Opinion page, no one reads it. Its a great cause, but the real public yawns.

  11. Tim

    Silence, don’t disagree with any of your comments to me. Just as a thought experiment, I imagined a 3rd legislative house comprised of randomly chosen citizens conscripted by lottery to serve for a set period of time, whose job it was to judge the actions of the lawmakers ethics and approve their compensation.

    Ultimately, you don’t get better lawmakers until the people who vote them in improve.

  12. Silence

    @Tim – Sounds fine to me, maybe though, there’s some sort of objective way we could measure legislative performance and base their pay off of that?

    I’ve often thought that we should tie the US Congress’ pay to having a balanced budget, or at least to passing a budget.

  13. Lynn

    Very simple….cut the air conditioning off and charge a competitive fee for them to park. Take the committee room chairs and chamber chairs away and make them stand to conduct the state’s biz. They’ll leave town. Of course the Lege staff will suffer some discomfort for which I do apologize. But when they’ve hit the city limits we can turn the AC back on.

  14. Tim

    They should also get a flat rate of pay, so as not to incentivize long sessions. Ours are longer than almost any other states, and we really only need biennial session, alternating with an abbreviated rump session. They hate governors (understandably with our recent crop), though, so they like to be in Columbia. And get their per diems.

  15. `Kathryn Fenner

    But Tim, how would they pass all those crowd-pleasing laws aimed at addressing one bad case–the ones named after some victim, for example?

  16. Tim

    They don’t do a very good job passing crowd-pleasing laws, if you go by how the public disapproves of what they do. Of course, as stated, the public pretty much does a lot of fist-shaking at the Statehouse, but seldom does anything. Definition of a “Tail told by an idiot,…”

  17. Silence

    Good point about reactionary lawmaking…
    Amend the state constitution to require a mandatory waiting period of 5 years before laws proposed by the legislature can be brought to a vote.

  18. Tim

    It is pretty easy to pass amendments to the constitution here. Just get it on the ballot and it robotically gets voted in. The art is how you draft the amendment.

  19. `Kathryn Fenner

    Reactive lawmaking, no?

    Just because they aren’t very effective, doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to pander.

  20. Nick Nielsen

    I’ve been watching the two-ring circus that passes for the SC Legislature for the past 13 years. Sometimes laughing, quite often crying, and occasionally shaking my head in disbelief.

    As individuals, they are probably reasonably intelligent and personable people.

    As a group, they prove the hypothesis that a committee is the only known form of life with two or more stomachs…and no brain.

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