/Capitol leaders showed active interest in AG ruling on retirees serving in Legislature, documents reveal

Capitol leaders showed active interest in AG ruling on retirees serving in Legislature, documents reveal

Gunn stated that the late-2013 ruling was flawed. Gunn stated that “We all know there’ll be a new Attorney General next year”, referring to Hood’s run for governor this year. “… I suspect that the next attorney general will either reverse the ruling or clarify the matter.” Hood’s decision late last year caused a lot of buzz. Many education supporters hoped that the ruling would lead to more retired teachers being elected to Congress and to be pro-education. Based on correspondence with administrators of the retirement system, the AG opinion created quite a buzz among Republican legislative leaders. Although legislators’ correspondence has been exempted from state public records laws for a long time, Mississippi Today was able access the correspondence by filing a request to the Public Employees Retirement System. Mississippi Today is joining news organizations around the country to mark Sunshine Week. This annual initiative aims to raise awareness about open government and public access to information. Emails and other correspondence revealed that many key Republican legislators, such as Lt. Governor, were receiving updates from the PERS Board of Trustees. Tate Reeves, Gunn and their staff were all receiving updates about how the PERS Board of Trustees might modify its regulations to conform to the AG’s opinion. Although the correspondence did not contain any evidence that legislative leaders tried to influence the PERS Board’s decisions, there were some who were concerned about this possibility. Hood stated that the emails show that the law needs to be amended so legislators are not exempted from the public records laws. Hood stated that the emails show why legislators should be subject the Open Records Act as all other state or local elected officials. Rep. Laura Hipp answered questions about Reeves’ involvement. She said that the PERS board was working to establish regulations that would adhere to federal law, maintain the health of the plan and keep it in good standing. Reeves is excited to see what they produce. Early reports indicate that only a few retired people were qualified to run for a legislative seat by March 1. Some retired teachers might not have been keen to run for a Senate or House seat after the PERS Board passed a resolution at a February special meeting stating that they would adhere to the AG’s opinion by January 1, 2020. The PERS Board could decide to not change the regulation. This could mean that they will have to decide whether or not to draw their pensions after the election. The correspondence involved Ways and Means Chair Jeff Smith from Columbus, House Appropriations Chairman John Read of Gautier and Speaker Pro Tem Greg Snowden, Meridian, and Reps. Jim Beckett, Hank Zuber, Mark Barker, Brandon, and Trey Lamar, all Senatobia. All of them are Republicans. Baker is running to be attorney general, and Hood and Reeves will be seeking the nomination of their party in the governor’s race. Mississippi Today interviewed several legislators to find out if they wanted to influence the PERS Board’s decision. However, they expressed concern about the AG’s opinion. Gunn stated that he was concerned about potential conflicts in law if retired legislators were allowed to sit in the Legislature and receive their pension. Gunn pointed out two laws that said public sector retirees could only receive half their salary if the state allows them to return to work, and one that stated that legislators should receive their salaries. In its special meeting, the PERS Board voted to move toward Jan. 1, a ruling that retirees can serve and receive their pension. However, it did not decide on this issue. However, there is a theory that legislators are part-time to be able to draw their full salary. Gunn points out another law that states that legislators are full-time for the purposes of the retirement system. “I support more qualified people being allowed to serve in the Legislature. Lamar stated, “Permanently, I guess I’ll say.” “But there are potential legal issues…I don’t have all of the answers right now. However, there appears to be some conflict between state law.” The PERS administrators agreed to send updates to the legislators about what they did at the February special meeting. Hood stated that Gunn predicted that the opinion would change. Hood said that the PERS Board voted unanimously to adopt regulations that will allow state retirees to continue serving in the Legislature at the 2020 legislative session. This would allow them to keep their hard-earned retirement. This will not change with a new AG. I support the right of everyone to run and think that people who have served as public servants for our state would make great legislators. It would be reasonable to expect that others would appreciate the ongoing service of our retired teachers and law enforcement officers, as well as other state employees.” Although the AG opinion is not legally binding, it does provide protection against lawsuits for public officials who comply with it.