The entrance to the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System building in Jefferson City. (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).
Inside pension bills with provisions to encourage retired teachers to return to the classroom and protect the finances of the Missouri Sheriffs Retirement System are provisions that could boost the incomes of Gov. Mike Parson, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe and at least three legislators.
But the idea’s biggest legislative proponents, who actually don’t stand to gain from it becoming law, argue it’s not about any particular elected official, but rather an issue of fairness and ensuring state employees aren’t disincentivized from running for office.
Under current law, anyone eligible for a pension from the Missouri State Employees Retirement System, also called MOSERS, cannot receive their benefits if they are elected to the legislature or statewide office.
And while benefits are suspended, MOSERS does not add cost-of-living adjustments to the annuity.
The bills include provisions touching many state-operated pension systems. The bill to encourage teachers would allow them to earn more in non-educator roles at school districts, or even return to the classroom for four years, without losing benefits. The bill that includes the sheriffs retirement system would mandate a monthly contribution to be deducted from each sheriff’s salary and a minimum benefit of $1,000 a month.
The lawmakers responsible for putting the provision into the two pension bills awaiting action by Parson said they did it because people who have earned benefits in other state-operated retirement systems do not lose their pension if they get elected to the General Assembly or statewide office..
“These people worked for this,” said Rep. Bill Owen, a Springfield Republican who pushed for the change but will not benefit from it. “No other public pension fund denies you your pension.”
State employees covered by MOSERS, including statewide elected officials, receive a pension equal to 1.6% of the average of their highest 36 months of wages times the number of years employed by the state.
State workers can start earning a full pension when their years of service plus their age equals 80. Employees hired before 2000 who do not qualify for that provision must have five years of service and be 65 to receive their annuity. Employees hired after 2000 can retire at 62 with five years of state employment.
Lawmakers receive $150 for every two-year session, or part of a session, if they are in office for three or more sessions. Once out of office, a former lawmaker must be 55 or older to receive the pension.
The change in the bills on Parson’s desk creates an exemption to the law requiring retirees to give up their benefits if they return to work in state government for more than 20 hours a week.
Candy Smith, spokeswoman for MOSERS, confirmed that any official who meets the requirements for receiving a pension can begin their benefits if the bill becomes law.
The bill “would allow a member to receive, while serving as a member of the General Assembly or as a statewide elected official, a retirement benefit for which they are eligible,” she wrote in an email to The Independent.
Parson and Kehoe would be eligible under the bill because of their time as state lawmakers. Parson is a former sheriff and eligible for benefits from the Missouri Sheriff’s Retirement System. He is eligible for a MOSERS legislative pension of $900 a month for his 12 years in the House and Senate.
Parson’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would sign the bills or apply for his MOSERS pension if he becomes eligible.
Kehoe, a former auto dealer, is eligible for a MOSERS pension of $600 a month for seven years in the state Senate. Kehoe, a candidate for governor, would not apply for his legislative pension while in office if he becomes eligible, spokeswoman Gabby Picard wrote in an email.
There are two House members – Reps. Kent Haden, R-Mexico, and John Black, R-Springfield – and one senator, Sen. Karla Eslinger, who could receive MOSERS benefits if they were not legislators.
There are four other lawmakers who are vested in the system, which means they are eligible for a pension when they reach the minimum age.
Haden, a veterinarian, was state epidemiologist for the Department of Agriculture. Black, an attorney, was general counsel for Missouri State University in Springfield. Eslinger was deputy commissioner for four years in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Haden worked for the agriculture department for 11 years. He became aware of the provision as the bills were coming to the floor in May, he said. He was absent for the vote on the bill with teacher provisions and voted for the one that deals with the sheriffs’ retirement.
He has other income, he said, but he’s not going to turn the money down if it becomes available.
“It is going to be nice to have,” he said. “I probably would never have recovered the money.”
Black, who also served as counsel to City Utilities in Springfield, is receiving a pension for that work from the Local Government Employees Retirement System, known as LAGERS, but not for his 12 years at Missouri State.
Black, too, was aware of the provisions. He voted “present” on the sheriffs’ retirement bill and in favor of the bill with teacher provisions.
Black said he’s not bothered personally that he isn’t receiving a MOSERS pension but said the benefit is far more important to people who spent their entire career in state government.
“People with 20 or 30 years, for many of them, it would be an incredible sacrifice to give up the pension they have earned,” Black said. “This allows people with significant experience in state government to provide the benefit of that experience to the state.”
Eslinger, through a staff member, declined to comment.
Owen sponsored the allowance for lawmaker and statewide official benefits in a standalone bill and said he wasn’t thinking about who could currently benefit when he introduced the bill.
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There are more than two dozen former educators, more than a half-dozen former MoDOT and Missouri State Highway Patrol employees and at least 10 who worked for local governments in the House and Senate. Not all are old enough to receive their vested pensions but many are.
Former public employees covered by MOSERS – a group that includes most four-year state universities as well as most state departments – generally cannot afford the financial sacrifice of being a lawmaker, which brings a $37,711 annual salary, Owen said.
One way former local officials, teachers and highway patrol troopers contribute to legislative business is by providing insight into those agencies and governments, Owen said. It isn’t right to exclude a category of potential candidates, he said.
“We need a broad array of people with strong backgrounds,” Owen said. “Why should we exclude that experience?”
State Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau, included Owen’s proposal in Senate bills that he handled as chairman of the House Pensions Committee. He’s a retired police officer receiving a pension from the Local Government Employees Retirement System.
He said he knew a handful of current officials could benefit from the change if signed by Parson, but said fairness was a bigger concern.
“The thought process, the bottom line is, we didn’t want to prohibit people who have been long-time employees, and that there was a penalty that wouldn’t allow them to run for office,” Hovis said.
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