April 28, 2015

Comer's pension windfall is $467,000

Citizens for Sound Government, a super PAC in Denver, is attacking gubernatorial candidate James Comer in TV ads for his vote in favor of a bill when he was a legislator in 2005 that increased his own pension. 

Below is an explanation of Comer’s pension increase. 

To read the full report — and see who else voted for the bill and examples of gold-plated pensions — click here http://ow.ly/Mf3y4

Editor’s Note
Kentucky’s public employee pension plans are complex and complicated. So much so that reporters, editorial writers and columnists, with rare exceptions, give readers mere generalities, which is sometimes misleading. For example, an esteemed columnist wrote recently in The Courier-Journal that HB 299, the bill now biting Comer, “would have been very small, essentially reflecting cost-of-living increases in legislative pay, had Comer not been elected to statewide office in 2011.” Not even technically correct in fullness, the inference it planted in the minds of readers (unintended or not) was that the political fuss about it in the governor’s race is over a trivial matter. Armed with the information provided below and at http://ow.ly/Mf3y4, you can be the judge of that! 

Thanks to HB 299, former Rep. Harry Moberly is drawing a legislative pension of at least $169,000 a years; former Rep. J.R. Gray is drawing a legislative pension of at least $136,000 a year; and Rep. Greg Stumbo’s legislative pension will be at least $94,000 a year. 

Kentucky’s six state-administered pension systems have an unfunded liability of $34.6 billion as of June 30, 2014. 

Former Rep. James Comer’s windfall
[This story is reprinted from a white paper titled, “The Unsustainable: Kentucky’s Public Employee Pensions Systems,” authored by Lowell Reese, published in 2012 in The Kentucky Gazette.]

Among current policymakers to significantly benefit from HB 299 is Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer. Even before winning last year’s election Comer, then a representative from Tompkinsville, joined 17 of his fellow Republicans in the House by voting in favor of HB 299, a bill that could double or even triple his legislative pension – if he were to win a statewide office or get appointed to an upper-echelon job in state or local government, or even accept a position with one of several private organizations that have been granted state pension privileges.

On Jan. 1, 2012, the moment Comer raised his hand for the oath of office as the commonwealth’s new agriculture commissioner, which pays $113,616 a year, he hit the jackpot as a result of his vote on House Bill 299 in the 2005 legislative session. Suddenly, Comer’s pension for having served 11 years in the legislature nearly tripled. Simply upon taking the oath, his annual legislative pension spiked from $13,100 a year to $34,369.

Comer can begin drawing the pension in full when he reaches age 63. Just for winning the election and helping enact what became known as “the greed bill” in 2005, Comer’s windfall over a lifetime comes to at least $467,906.

As impressive as it is, Comer’s “gold find” is small compared to the pension spikes of some legislators. Bigger yet, in importance, are the generous benefits the politicians have bestowed upon their constituents who work in government.

Comer’s legislative pension is determined using the state’s three-factor formula: (1) Eleven years of service; (2) a service credit rate of 2.75 percent; and (3) the average of his highest three years of salary as a legislator, which was $43,037 a year.

Comer’s windfall involves two pension systems – the legislators’ plan he’s coming from and the state employees’ plan he now has joined. The pension padding bill contained a reciprocity provision, which means any legislator who was serving in the 2005 session – and all legislators elected afterward – can calculate their legislative pensions based not on their pay as legislators, which are part-time jobs, but on their pay in full-time positions held before or after leaving the legislature as long as those other jobs are with employers participating in one of the six state administered retirement systems.

Commissioner Comer as a new state employee now begins a second pension in the Kentucky Employees Retirement System (KERS). Over the next four years – or eight if he is re-elected – his salary and compound cost-of-living increases (once he retires), likely will boost his legislative pension gain to a figure much greater than a half-million dollars.

His excessive gain from public service happens to be only the most recent example of how legislators are padding their pensions. As you will read, the pensions of some legislators are super rich – riches they voted for themselves because they could, once Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. allowed them to begin exerting independence from the executive branch in 1980.

Before that, previous governors greatly expanded and protected from repeal the pensions of public employees, a practice subsequent governors obviously accepted, and through their own initiatives continued the benefit creep, gradually, often in silent catlike steps.