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Legislative pension perks

A deep-seated frustration seems to dog some Nevadans. Because the state has so far opted not to follow New York or California toward fiscal oblivion, critics charge that we’re “last in everything” when it comes to spending on various government endeavors.

But every now and then comes evidence that the foot-dragging of Nevada’s supposedly Neanderthal electorate has actually kept us out of trouble.

More than 4,100 legislators in 33 states are positioned to benefit from special retirement laws that they and their predecessors have enacted to boost their pensions by up to $100,000 a year, a USA Today investigation found. “Even as legislators cut basic state services and slash benefits for police, teachers and other workers, they have preserved pension laws that grant themselves perks unavailable to voters they serve or workers they direct.”

In some states, lawmakers add expenses, per diem allowances and stipends to their base salaries. In other states, legislators have written a special definition of salary that applies only to their pensions.

Such systems mean at least 570 lawmakers in 19 states have qualified for pensions that will pay them as much as their base legislative salaries — and in the case of Texas state Rep. Tom Craddick, a pension more than 17 times his salary.

“It’s mind-blowing hypocrisy,” says state Rep. Stephen Webber, a Democrat from Missouri. Records show a typical lawmaker’s pension there averages 30 percent more than a state worker’s. Why? Legislators who might balk at raising their own salaries find voters pay little attention to votes on arcane formulas setting legislative pensions to (in the Texas example) match those of $125,000-a-year state trial judges.

Illinois and Wisconsin, where year-round legislators receive base salaries of $79,623 and $49,943, are notable offenders, allowing lawmakers to retire earlier than other state workers, while also handing themselves higher pension “multipliers.”

Kansas lawmakers decided to set their own pensions based on the premise that they each work 372 days per year.

Nevada, on the other hand, limits lawmakers to four months of legislating every other year, for which the delegates are paid about $6,414 in salary and stipends. Yes, their retirement multiplier — $300 for each year in office — is higher than that of most state workers, but Nevada legislators pay more into their retirement fund, as well.

It’s still far easier for a government pensioner — especially given their early retirement ages — to afford to sit in the Legislature, somewhat frustrating the goal of a “citizen Legislature,” as such members tend to sympathize more with the needs of their former bureaucratic cohorts than with the burden on private-sector taxpayers, who can’t afford to give up four months to go sit in Carson City.

But “backward” Nevada remains notably absent from the newspaper’s rogues gallery of worst legislative pension offenders.

It’s nice to learn Nevada is doing something right.

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