COLUMBIA — Negative reaction was swift Friday to a report that South Carolina lawmakers collect government pensions that are at least two times higher than their annual salaries, and much more generous than the average state retiree.
Bud Skidmore, a 64-year-old from Edisto Island, said the news is really no surprise to him. He put in nearly 30 years before his retirement with ETV.
“Most state employees have know for years that the guys over there writing the laws were writing them to suit themselves,” he said. “They’ve had very little regard for the people who work for them, but they took real good care of themselves.”
The average annual pension for one of the 124,000 state retirees — including teachers, law enforcement officers and city and county staff — is $19,000.
An investigation by the USA Today revealed that lawmakers across the country use a series of tactics to make their pensions as generous as possible.
In South Carolina, lawmakers earn $10,400 a year, but their pensions can include other expenses, such as the annual $12,000 in-district costs they have access to.
Individual legislative retirement pay varies for from one legislator to the next.
Individual legislative retirement pay could vary for from one legislator to the next. The Post and Courier is seeking information from the state Budget and Control to pin down exact benefits available to the legislative retirees.
The newspaper’s investigation found that raising pensions have been the preferred way for legislators to increase their salaries.
Other perks build in by the states include: using a legislator’s regular job to base their pension pay, allowing them to collect both a state pensions and a legislative paycheck, and offering retirement benefits for fewer years in the system than regular government workers, according to USA Today.
The article used South Carolina Sen. David Thomas as an example. The Greenville Republican, now 62, began collecting a pension for his legislative service at age 55 while he continued to serve in the Senate.
A little-known provision slipped in the state budget allows South Carolina lawmakers to collect a pension instead of a salary after they’ve spent 30 years in office.
Thomas’ annual retirement benefit is $32,390 and available for the rest of his life, according to USA Today. Since January 2005, Thomas has made $148,435 more than a legislative salary would have paid.
Thomas did not immediately return a call for comment.
A total of 19 other current senators are drawing similar pensions. Locally they include Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; and Sens. Robert Ford, D-Charleston; John Matthews, D-Bowman; and Mike Rose, R-Summerville. The Post and Courier has requested information on the number of House members drawing retirement pay.
McConnell said that he waited until he served 30 years in the Senate to draw down retirement pay. He noted that legislators’ salaries are low compared to the amount of time they spend on the job. The Legislature meets three days a week for six months a year. They also manage constituent concerns throughout the year and have out-of-session responsibilities, such as attending committee meetings.
Rather than provide the pension perks, the Legislature should have adjusted its salaries over the years, McConnell said.
“For citizens to be able to come and serve in the Legislature — which I think is essential — the state should pay legislators more,” he said. “Over the years, what we’ve done is start to starve out good people from serving.”
Matthews said he has no problem with the pension available to legislators, considering the low salary.
“It’s not a six-month job; it’s a full-time job,” Matthews said. “People think legislators make money — they do not.”
Meanwhile, the state retirement system has serious financial problems.
The retirement system needs a plan to generate enough cash to cover $17 billion worth of pension benefits within 30 years. But that doesn’t mean the state has 30 years to get things straight. At risk is the state’s credit rating, and the problem is compounded as the clock ticks.
On the line are cost-of-living increases, the number of years public employees must work before they earn retirement pay and future contribution rates.
Skidmore said he is not optimistic that lawmakers will change their pensions to help address the funding gap.
“Lawmakers will never back away,” he said. “They’ve earned that benefit. There is no authority to keep them in line or make them do the right thing. The only thing is to shame them. And most of them are shameless.”
Ashley Landess, president of the S.C. Policy Council, said legislators’ actions are disgraceful.
“State lawmakers in South Carolina write their own rules, and they’ve been doing it for a long time,” Landess said. “On Freedom of Information laws, ethics violations, pension benefits — the list is long and depressing —we’ve got one set of rules for Columbia politicians, and another for everybody else.”
Read more in Saturday’s editions of The Post and Courier.