COLUMBIA -- Bud Skidmore, an Edisto Island retiree, spent about 30 years working at South Carolina ETV to earn the pension he lives on, but the money he collects is nothing compared with the generous benefits state lawmakers give themselves.
The average annual pension for the 124,000 state retirees, including teachers and law enforcement officers, is $19,000, or about half of their working salary.
Skidmore's is about $17,000 after taxes, and he supplements that with a couple of side jobs.
Lawmakers, however, draw government pensions that are more than three times their pay.
Skidmore, 64, said the news is really no surprise to him.
"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."
A USA Today story published Friday revealed that lawmakers across the country use a series of tactics to make their pensions as generous as possible. The newspaper's investigation found that raising pensions has been the preferred way for legislators to increase their salaries.
In South Carolina lawmakers are paid $10,400 a year, but their pensions also can be based on other add-on expenses, such as the annual $12,000 in-district expense costs they have access to.
The last time South Carolina legislators gave themselves a raise was 1991, when their annual salary was increased by $400. In 1995 they increased the monthly payment they can receive for in-district expenses from $300 to $1,000.
In 2002 they sweetened the pot for themselves by allowing members to collect a pension instead of a salary after they have spent 30 years in office. Others have bought credit in the system, which allows them to collect the pension early, an option similar to one for other state workers.
Pension plus pay
Lawmakers get an extra generous formula for calculating their pensions. For starters, their pensions are based on their salary plus their in-district compensation, for a total of $22,400.
On top of that their annual pension payout is 145 percent times their salary and their in-district compensation, which would come to a pension of $32,480, more than three times the legislators' $10,400 salary. The amount can vary from one legislator to the next.
State employees, including teachers, collect 54.6 percent of their highest salary, and retired police officers draw down 62.4 percent of their working pay.
Throughout the country, USA Today reported, states use legislators' regular jobs to base their pension pay, allow them to collect a state pensions and a legislative paycheck, and offer retirement benefits for fewer years in the system than regular government workers.
The story used S.C. Sen. David Thomas' situation as an example. The Greenville Republican, 62, began collecting a pension for his legislative service at age 55 while he continued to serve in the Senate.
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 return a call for comment.
Nineteen current senators are drawing similar pensions. Locally, they include Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; Robert Ford, D-Charleston; John Matthews, D-Bowman; and Mike Rose, R-Summerville.
The Post and Courier requested the number of House members drawing retirement pay, but could not obtain that information Friday.
McConnell said he waited until he served 30 years in the Senate to draw retirement pay. He noted that legislators' salaries are low compared with the amount of time they spend on the job.
The Legislature meets three days a week for six months a year. Lawmakers 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.
Recently, Rep. Kevin Ryan, a 23-year-old Republican from Pawleys Island, announced that he would not run for a second term because his legislative work was holding him back from earning a living.
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."
Rose said he inherited the system and had no part in creating it. What's more, he said, he has access to the pension now whether or not he is a sitting legislator. Although he served only 12 years as a legislator, certain system rules allow him to get credit for additional time.
The way he sees it is that his service now is for free, because he already has paid into the system and no longer collects a salary, Rose said.
Ford did not return a call for comment.
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. The problem is compounded with time.
Fixes could involve altering retirees' 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."
A 2002 law allows lawmakers to collect pensions while still serving in the Legislature. Overall, retired legislators collect $5.3 million. That includes 269 who are living but no longer in office.
Nineteen senators receive a pension instead of a legislative salary. Information on the House members who forgo their pay for a pension was not available Friday.
Here are the 19 senators:
Ralph Anderson, D-Greenville; John Courson, R-Columbia; Dick Elliott, D-North Myrtle Beach; Mike Fair, R-Greenville; Robert Ford, D-Charleston; Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill; John Land, D-Manning; Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence; Phil Leventis, D-Sumter; Larry Martin, R-Pickens; John Matthews, D-Bowman; Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston; Yancey McGill, D-Kingstree; Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney; Glenn Reese, D-Inman; Mike Rose, R-Summerville; John Scott, D-Columbia; Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia; David Thomas, R-Greenville.