Sunday, February 4, 2007

They like to call themselves citizen legislators. But there may not be a part-time job anywhere in America that comes with the kinds of perks that members of the Texas Legislature can collect.

But the perks sure are nice


AUSTIN -- They like to call themselves citizen legislators. But there may not be a part-time job anywhere in America that comes with the kinds of perks that members of the Texas Legislature can collect.

With just 12 years of service, they can retire at age 50, get state-paid healthcare and collect a yearly pension nearly five times greater than their salary, records show. Yes, that salary is a paltry $7,200 a year, but lawmakers also get an extra $19,460 in "per diem" payments while in regular session at current per diem rates, which go up annually.

The perks start to add up once you throw in the free parking, the wining and dining from lobbyists, and all the campaign money used for living expenses, critics say. Many say the notion that lawmakers work part time is outdated, arguing that they should get fewer perks in exchange for a reasonable -- and transparent -- benefit package.

"Without a doubt, legislators have found ways to compensate themselves for their years of service. They have hidden hefty pensions and their medical benefits from public view as well," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, head of the state branch of Public Citizen, a liberal watchdog group. "What we favor is paying them $75,000 a year, reducing their retirement and eliminating the abilities to use campaign funds to help support them while in office."

Efforts to change lawmakers' wages and cut back their often hidden perks are generally greeted like the bubonic plague in the Legislature. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, is pushing a bill that would cut off pension benefits to legislators convicted of crimes of moral turpitude, but he acknowledges that getting it and other ethics measures passed will be an "uphill climb."

"It's changing a system that has operated for some time," he said. "I'm not sure there are that many people who want to see it change."

Another lawmaker, Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, is also swimming against the tide with legislation tying their pensions to the salaries of Texas teachers. Right now the pensions are tied to what state district judges get, so when legislators raised those salaries in 2005 to $125,000 a year, they increased their own pensions by 23 percent.

Free health insurance

Lawmakers also get full healthcare benefits, both as active members and in retirement. As they consider cutting back state healthcare benefits to the poor this year, 100 percent of the cost of their own health insurance premiums will be picked up by Texas taxpayers, records show.

Meanwhile, the city of Austin also provides perks, giving state lawmakers parking privileges at the Austin airport and any of its coin-operated meters, free dips at the famous Barton Springs swimming hole, and complimentary rounds of golf at any city-owned course, records show.

And though wining and dining aren't listed in the official benefit package of the "elected class," as legislators are formally known within the state retirement system, that also comes with the job. They and their staffers collectively receive millions of dollars in free meals, drinks, travel junkets, lodging and gifts from the special-interest lobby, records show.

From Jan. 1, 2005, to Oct. 10 of last year, registered lobbyists spent $5 million in entertainment and gifts for lawmakers and their staffers, according to figures compiled by Texans for Public Justice, a campaign watchdog group. The numbers include spending on close family members and certain executive branch employees.

In a new twist, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a pro-business group that has successfully pushed measures making it harder for lawyers to sue and win big jury verdicts, has begun sponsoring an annual event for female lawmakers and staffers: Instead of just offering martinis and hors d'oeuvres, they got manicures, pedicures and massages on "TLR's Girls' Night Out" at the swanky Four Seasons last week.

"We had a huge turnout," said TLR's Sherry Sylvester. "This is a very relaxing kind of venue."

Cost figures for the event were not available yet.

Campaign funds

While lobbyists spend to entertain politicians, many lawmakers also use their own campaign funds to finance living expenses, doling out thousands of dollars on cars, cable TV and furniture, as well as maintaining second homes in Austin. A study of campaign spending habits of state senators, conducted in 2004 by the watchdog group Campaigns for People, found that only 40 percent of the money went for politicking.

The rest went for items such as rent and car payments and club memberships, as well as boosting the pay of their government staff, the study found. Fred Lewis, the Austin activist who wrote the report, said his research has shown that the vast majority of legislators who get re-elected year after year without serious competition are "using their contributions to eat well, drink well and live well."

That may sound like a good deal for taxpayers since the campaign money comes from private donors. But Lewis said average Texans actually get charged more than they should because lawmakers are returning the favor to their contributors with state-funded largesse and costly special-interest legislation.

"We are being extremely penny wise and pound stupid," he said.

The law regarding campaign contributions seems clear. It says the lawmakers can't "convert the contribution to personal use." In practice, however, critics say the law is too vague and has allowed members to live large on private donations, which are used on luxury condos, plane tickets to conferences in Europe and items like satellite radio subscriptions or football tickets.

It's illegal to purchase real estate with campaign money, but numerous lawmakers have used campaign dollars to pay rent on homes that are put in the names of their spouses, who then use the money to finance a mortgage. An opinion by the Texas Ethics Commission says the practice is legal if the home is the spouse's "separate property," but it has still been controversial.

'Perception counts'

Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, said he took all the necessary steps to legally remove any personal ownership from homes he lived in while serving as a legislator in Austin. But he was criticized for paying rent to his wife from his campaign funds and ended up losing his seat in the November elections. Goodman said it was perfectly legal -- and discussed in advance with Ethics Commission lawyers -- but, in the campaign setting, was easily criticized.

"If I had it to over again, I wouldn't do it," Goodman said. "In a political campaign, perception counts."

Looking back, Goodman said he found his 16 years in the Legislature to be among the most rewarding experiences of his life -- but not for any perks. He said the notion of legislative service as a part-time job is about as realistic as sunbathing at the North Pole. Though some lawmakers abuse the system, Goodman, who is eligible to collect $46,000 a year in gross pension pay, said he would have made a lot more money practicing law in Arlington than making law in Austin.

The pension "is not that great," Goodman said, noting that he was already fully vested in the system after six two-year terms. "If I was in it for the pension, I would have quit after 12 years."

The perks and benefits

The framers of the Texas Constitution envisioned legislators as part-time politicians who would do the people's work in Austin once every two years and then go home to abide by any new laws they passed. But in modern times, the perks and benefits have come to include far more than their paltry $600-a-month salary. Here is a snapshot of what legislators can expect from this "part-time" job:

Annual salary, per the state constitution, of $7,200.

Per diem payments worth $19,460 per member in 2007. ($139 a day during any regular or special session, including weekends, holidays and adjournments)

Yearly pensions for vested legislators, allowing retirement at age 50 for members with 12 years of service, or at age 60 for those with at least eight years. (A 20-year veteran legislator could retire at 50 with a $57,500 annual pension.)

Lifetime retiree healthcare for any member with eight or more years of elected service. As with active members, the state pays 100 percent of the premiums.

Wide discretion to use campaign funds, often tapped for travel, entertainment, car leases and furniture, as well as maintaining second homes in Austin.

Free meals and entertainment, all-expenses-paid travel junkets, golf outings, skeet shoots -- even manicures, pedicures and massages -- all courtesy of special-interest lobbyists.

Blanket exemption from jury service, even when the Legislature is not in session.

Free parking for members and spouses at the Austin airport and city parking meters, free golf at city courses, free swimming at Barton Springs and other pools, courtesy of the city of Austin.

SOURCES: Texas Employee Retirements System, Texas Ethics Commission, city of Austin

They earn $7,200 a year for a part-time job.

But their daily allowance adds up to about $20,000 in the regular session.

They get thousands of dollars in free meals, drinks, even manicures.

Not to mention being able to finance cars and maintain second homes in Austin, at times paid for with campaign funds.

And after 12 years of service, they can retireat age 50, get free healthcare and collect an annual pension of almost $35,000.