Gov. Nikki Haley says something needs to be done to alter a pension system that gives South Carolina legislators wider benefits than other state workers. The subject has become controversial following a report in USA Today last week detailing ways in which lawmakers’ pensions are more advantageous than those afforded other state workers. The president of the S.C. Retirees Association has entered the fray, criticizing the practice and calling for reforms.
Let us note from the outset that we don’t think representatives and senators are overpaid. They are paid $10,400 a year and haven’t voted themselves a raise since 1991. Though their jobs are technically classified as part time, they really aren’t what most people would consider part time. We imagine that if the hours worked by most legislators were tallied, they’d end up being considered full time. So on an hourly basis, they certainly aren’t getting any kind of sweetheart deal.
But voters -- especially during these hard economic times, when lawmakers in Washington have a dreadfully low approval rating -- just don’t like programs that appear to give unfair advantage to people who hold office. The state retirement plan does that when it comes to legislative benefits. Unlike other state employees, legislators can figure their expenses -- driving back and forth to work, for instance -- in tallying their pensions, and in some cases they draw retirement pay more than three times their ordinary legislative salary. Many are doing so though they continue to serve in the General Assembly. The multiplier used to set legislative pensions also is far higher than the one used for most other state retirees.
People obviously don’t run for the legislature based on salary, and given today’s political climate, they don’t do it for popularity. They do it for a variety of reasons, including the desire to serve others and for some, the power that comes along with the job. If they want to raise their salaries, they have every right to do so. But the “evening out” of pay shouldn’t come because of a pension system that gives them a boost over other state employees. It should be changed.