Open books on legislative pensions

By Editorial Board, Austin American-Statesman
Originally posted Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013

Asked if she recalls voting on bills that would keep Texas taxpayers from knowing how much is spent on legislative pensions, State Rep. Donna Howard replied that she doesn’t.

Howard, an Austin Democrat who took office in 2006, wryly noted that the legislation to deprive voters of such information wouldn’t have been announced in big, bold letters well in advance of adoption.

But thanks to the American-Statesman’s Mike Ward we know about it now. The lack of information surfaced in a court ruling rendered by Travis County State District Judge Lora Livingston. The judge ruled against Texans for Public Justice, whose members wanted to know how much the state pays out in legislative pensions. They weren’t seeking individual pension amounts; they just wanted to know the grand total in retirement benefits taxpayers fund for the 103 former lawmakers who are now lobbyists.

Livingston said the information is secret by law.

How convenient for the lawmakers who voted to deny the public a look at how their money is being spent. How inconvenient for those who fund the pensions.

The anti-disclosure laws were passed over the past decade, gradually choking off public disclosure on how much is spent on legislative pensions to the point where even aggregate amounts and cumulative totals are off-limits.

Legislative pensions are tied to the annual salaries of state district judges which generally speaking are $125,000. Legislative pension totals are a percentage of the judicial pay multiplied by the years of service in the Legislature, multiplied by 2.3 percent. Of course, legislators have to serve at least eight years (four terms for House members, two terms for senators) to be eligible for a pension draw.

Ex-legislators with eight years can start drawing the pension at 60. Those with 10 years of service can start collecting at 50.

Tying the pension amount to judicial salaries is a also a convenient and longstanding dodge. Lawmakers who might be hard-pressed to explain a vote to augment their own pensions but don’t have a tough time making a case to raise the pay of the state’s judges.

Legislators will be quick to point out that their base pay is a mere $600 a month — set by the state constitution — supplemented by a per diem during the session. So, the pension is a sort of deferred compensation for the all the long and grueling hours demanded of legislators.

Even if one accepts the deferred compensation view, however, there is no justification for keeping the public from knowing how their money is being spent. As Howard pointed out, the secrecy only fuels public perception that “we’re only here to help ourselves.”

She also noted the irony of the pension secrecy and announcements about the importance of open government. “Transparency is the big mantra — it’s the big theme this session. How much comes to fruition is the big question.”

Coincidentally, Howard filed legislation last week that would broaden financial disclosure requirements for legislators and legislative candidates. Her bill would require lawmakers and candidates to report all sources of earned and unearned income. Current law requires disclosure of job or professional income. It would also require the Texas Ethics Commission to post the disclosures online. Howard is also calling for a comprehensive review of personal financial disclosure laws during the interim by a committee that would include members of the public.

Asked if her legislation could be expanded to shed light on the pension expenditures now closed by state law Howard laughed.

“I don’t know that I’m going to get a hearing,” on her bills as submitted, she said.

Those disclosure bills should get a hearing and those laws allowing legislative pension secrecy should be reversed. Any suggestion that this is small matter of little public concern should be aggressively challenged.

As the French poet Charles Baudelaire observed: “the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

And secrecy provides the devil a luxurious home.