Y’all Politics brings you a Bill of the Day from the Mississippi Legislature that just may pique your interest. 

The issue of whether a state elected official should be able to draw on their retirement and receive a state salary as required by law has raised its head once again.

State Senator Michael McClendon (R) has filed SB 2475 which seeks to revise the statute that requires mandatory compensation for Mississippi Transportation Commissioners, making the salary discretionary for each Commissioner.

The bill would amend MS Code Section 65-1-7 by adding the words “be entitled to” within the section. If adopted, the section would read:

“The three (3) commissioners chosen as herein provided, and their successors, shall each be entitled to receive as compensation for their services salaries fixed by the Legislature, and in addition shall be allowed all of their actual and necessary traveling and other expenses incurred in the performance of their respective official duties.”

Mississippi’s elected Transportation Commissioners earn $78,000 per year. There are three Commissioners which represent the Northern, Central and Southern districts of the state.

Prior to being elected as a Northern District Transportation Commissioner, John Caldwell served as a DeSoto County Supervisor for two terms from 1996-2003 and was in the Desoto County School District for 14 years.  Central District Commissioner Willie Simmons served as a Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Corrections before serving as a state senator for 26 years.  Chairman Tom King spent nearly two decades in the state legislature and is now serving his third term as Southern District Commissioner.

Senator McClendon’s bill is aimed at allowing the Commissioners to elect to take a lower salary so they can continue to concurrently draw PERS benefits.

Senator McClendon told Y’all Politics on Monday that Northern District Transportation Commissioner Caldwell had requested the change.

A similar practice of allowing elected lawmakers to draw incomes from state service and retirement at the same time has been shunned by the Legislature and the IRS in the past.

Following the 2019 statewide election, a group of freshmen state representatives, all PERS retirees, sought to be allowed to “double dip,” drawing from their retirement and from a legislative salary. Speaker Philip Gunn (R) said at that time, “It is not right for taxpayers to have to fund both,” meaning the lawmakers’ legislative pay and their PERS benefits.

The saga began in November 2018 and January 2019 when former state Attorney General Jim Hood (D) issued opinions regarding PERS retirees serving in the Mississippi Legislature and continuing to receive benefits, according to PERS. In response to those opinions, the PERS Board of Trustees approved initial adoption in April 2019 of revisions to PERS Board Regulation 34, Reemployment after Retirement, allowing PERS retirees to serve in the state Legislature while continuing to receive benefit payments under certain conditions. Those revisions were officially adopted by the Board at their December 2019 meeting.

Then, in May 2020, the IRS provided a response to PERS whereby they declined to rule on the request to allow retired teachers to serve as legislators while still getting their full PERS benefits, vindicating Speaker Gunn in his position on the matter. This resulted in resignations from the freshmen lawmakers and special elections held to replace them.

Previous efforts to amend state law to allow elected lawmakers to “double dip” have failed in the Legislature as recently as the 2020 session.

However, the practice has been allowed for some time on the local level. Certain city councilmen and county elected officials are doing exactly what Commissioner Caldwell is asking for with Senator McClendon’s bill.

Advocates say allowing an official to draw their retirement instead of being forced to accept a state salary for an elected position saves the state money in the long run.

Opponents maintain that those same officials, for the most part, continue to accrue PERS benefits in their role as an elected official and thus should not be allowed to draw from PERS.  Further, as noted above, state law has, up to this point, required state elected officials to receive a compensation for their services at the amount designated by statute. Hence, the notion of “double dipping” at the taxpayers’ expense.

McClendon’s bill has been double referred, meaning it must pass out of both the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee and the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Committee before it could reach the Senate floor. That is a tall order for a bill, especially given the history of such efforts in the past.

You can read the full bill here.