/Retired state employees could increase limited field of legislative candidates; nearly 45% of seats unopposed in 2019

Retired state employees could increase limited field of legislative candidates; nearly 45% of seats unopposed in 2019

Many of the unopposed candidates didn’t draw opposition perhaps because they were well-known in their communities. Some people were not opposed because they didn’t have any other candidates in their areas who were interested in becoming legislators. There are many perks to being a legislator. These include lobbyists who will provide expensive food and drink, an enhanced retirement plan and the ability to set state policy. However, serving as a legislator can be a hassle. Many legislators also have other jobs such as being an attorney, farmer, or business owner. They must work while away from home for at least three consecutive month each year. A small business owner in New Albany, Mississippi or Bay St. Louis, on the Gulf Coast might find it difficult to operate their business from Jackson. This is one reason why there are so few candidates for legislative office. Retired public employees are ideal candidates for the legislative seats. There are currently around 100,000 ex-educators, state employees, and local government workers. Because of their previous jobs, they often have a good understanding of state issues and the time and money to serve. The House leadership makes it difficult for these ready-made candidates to run. Philip Gunn (R-Clinton), House Speaker, insists that public employees cannot receive their pensions while they serve in the Legislature. The regulation was based on a state law interpretation that stated retirees couldn’t draw their pensions while they were serving in the Legislature for decades. Late 2018, the AG’s office issued an official opinion stating that public retirees can serve in the Legislature while drawing a portion of their salary and their full pension. PERS amended its regulation based on the ruling of the AG. The House, however, is refusing to lower the legislative pay for four retired public employees who were elected in November. Their pensions will be lost if their legislative pay isn’t reduced. Their pensions will likely be significantly higher than their $10,000 per session legislative pay and $1,500 each month outside of session. As public employees, these legislators contributed a percentage (currently 9%) of their public sector salaries towards their pension. Ramona Blackledge, a former Jones County Tax assessor/collector, was one of the four elected public employees who resigned to avoid losing her pension. Her House service was actually saving money because, in her case, she could no longer receive per diem for food and lodging during session to be eligible for her pension. She also could not receive $1,500 per monthly out of her session salary to cover her living expenses. She was also unable to participate in the Supplemental Legislative retirement plan, SLRP (insert your own joke). She said that she was fine with the low salary for her legislative job. Blackledge points out that retired workers from the private sector could serve in the Legislature as well as draw their pension. Gunn says it is double dipping for a retired public employee to be able to both draw a pension and receive a salary as a legislator. Others public employees draw their pensions and work in government jobs. For example, retired teachers can still work part-time at a public school, or in any other area of state or local government, while also drawing a pension. The law of the state does not specifically prohibit retired public employees from serving in the Legislature or drawing their pension. Gunn and other advocates for this claim have offered an interpretation of the law that supports it. The AG came to a different conclusion. Gunn claims that a section of state law states that legislators “shall receive full pay” so their salaries cannot be reduced. However, legislators ignore the word should when it is in their favor, such as when the Mississippi Adequate Education Program “shall be” fully funded. It is not. PERS amended its regulation on the basis of that AG’s ruling and the assumption that the Internal Revenue Service will approve the change. If the IRS grants approval as expected then no one is being affected except legislators who might face a retired public servant in the next election._x000D