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Officeholders Tap Pensions to Run for Low-Paying Jobs

Photo by Erik Reyna for KUT News

Gov. Rick Perry has opened a whole new realm of campaign finance.

Perry is taking advantage of a wrinkle in state law that allows a state officeholder to collect a pension while also collecting a paycheck. For the governor, that’s a $92,376 annual pension on top of a $150,000 annual salary.

Sweet, right?

Old news, too, so let’s move on to 2014, and how this figures into that year’s elections. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst is running for Senate, and a number of his political colleagues figure his state job will be open in 2014 whether or not he wins in 2012. Four or five current state officials are talking openly or semi-openly about that race, sniffing around for support and letting the money people around the state know they’re interested.

One is Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who’s been open about the fact that income is a consideration. Lieutenant governors, though elected statewide to full-time jobs, get the same measly $600 per month that state legislators get paid.

Unlike Dewhurst, Patterson is not rich.

“Here’s what I’m going to do, is take my retirement,” Patterson said, adding that he’d have no realistic choice, given the job’s low pay. “I couldn’t be lieutenant governor without an income.”

Patterson was a state senator for six years and was elected to run the General Land Office in 2002, so he’s done the time it takes to qualify for a state pension. Even with that coming in, the new job as lieutenant governor (assuming he wins the 2014 election) would be a 50 percent pay cut from the $137,500 he makes as land commissioner. On top of the state pension, he’ll add Social Security — he turned 65 last month — and his Marine Corps retirement.

And unlike Perry, he’d actually be leaving a job — retiring, if you want to call it that — before taking the new one. He’d be maximizing his retirement, just like the retired guy who works part time as a greeter at your local Wal-Mart.

At least two others can do the same sort of retirement planning. Comptroller Susan Combs, who turned 66 this year, would be eligible, but she has fewer years of service: three in the House, eight as agriculture commissioner, and five so far as state comptroller. Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples served in the Legislature for 12 years and has been in his current post, like Combs, since 2007. He’s only 48 — not retirement age. But he’ll qualify if he stays at it.

This citizen legislator thing can turn people into chiselers.

They do have to stay alive. The statewide jobs pay more than legislative jobs and don’t merit your tears: Combs makes $150,000 annually, while Staples, like Patterson, makes $137,500.

But legislators, whatever you think of them, don’t make much. They get the $7,200 base pay each year, plus per diem payments to cover living expenses when they’re in Austin on state business. It’s clearly a part-time job in one light, since the legislative sessions take up only 140 days every two years. But constituents want help all the time. And politicians have to cut ribbons and make speeches and send a “Welcome to Texas” certificate to every baby born in the district.

They can use the other 590 days of their two-year terms making money at their real jobs. Texas voters have denied them pay raises on a number of occasions, and the idea is a guaranteed stink bomb if you include it in a poll. It doesn’t excuse the slow drip of minor-league financial scandals in state politics. A few years ago, it was lawmakers using campaign accounts to pay rent to their spouses for Austin properties. That turned out to be both legal and politically perilous.

More recently, Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, pleaded guilty to reimbursing his expenses from his campaign account and also including them in his state expense reports. He was sentenced this week, having reimbursed the state for his double dipping, to five years of probation and a $5,000 fine. He won’t be on next year’s ballot.

Patterson doesn’t think legislators’ pay should be raised, but he thinks the lieutenant governor should “absolutely” be paid what other statewide elected officials are paid, since it’s a full-time job and the voters control who holds it.

Until then, he’ll have to rely on supplements from the military, the state and Social Security.

Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.
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