From the Statehouse
Our legislative branch of government is the recipient of many slings and arrows.
They, along with members of Congress, are generally at the bottom of public opinion polls. They are the object of ridicule and are generally castigated as crooks.
It is a shame because most of these men and women are outstanding people who are striving to serve their state.
Many are stellar business people and professionals who are giving their retirement years to public service.
However, as soon as they put their names on the ballot and are elected they are then relegated to the term politician, which has a dubious perception.
It used to be an honorable endeavor to be elected and serve in the legislature. I was elected five times and served close to two decades.
I chose not to run for a sixth term in 1998.
About a decade ago I could feel the change. When I met someone and they inquired how I started in politics I would say, well I served a while in the state legislature.
They would simply look down in embarrassment for me as though I had served time in prison for robbing banks.
It became obvious that there was not only a lack of respect for the legislative service; it was truly a badge of dishonor.
I now ask the person introducing me when I speak to a group to omit my legislative service from the obligatory biographical intro and simply call me a political columnist and commentator.
Polling reveals an interesting paradox about legislators.
When asked about a legislative body, voters disapprove. However, when asked about their particular legislator they highly approve. It is as though he is not one of the body of rogues.
This negative perception of legislative bodies is not contained to just Alabama. Every state citizenry looks at their legislature with a jaundiced eye.
However, a recent expose by USA Today shines a positive spotlight on the Alabama Legislature. The article reveals lucrative pension schemes concocted throughout the country by numerous state legislatures for themselves.
The hypocrisy lies in the fact that these legislators are giving themselves generous pensions unheard of and totally unavailable to most Americans at a time when retirement benefits for other state workers are being trimmed.
A 55-year-old South Carolina state senator used a one-sentence law that he and his colleagues passed in 2002 to collect a $33,000 retirement package while still serving in the senate and collecting his salary.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley assailed the egregious pension bonanza and called for legislation to thwart these extravagant legislative pensions.
Pension perks are not unique to legislators in South Carolina. More than 4,100 legislators in 33 states are poised to benefit from special retirement laws that they and their predecessors have enacted to boost their pensions by up to $100,000 per year.
The most common vehicle being used to pump up legislative pensions is the addition of per diem expense allowances and stipends to their base salaries.
This significantly inflates the compensation that is used to calculate retirement benefits.
This flagrant abuse appears to be widespread among the states.
These generous systems have enabled at least 570 lawmakers in 19 states to qualify for pensions that will pay them as much, if not more, than their base legislative salaries. Forty states allow legislative pensions.
About 450 lawmakers in Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and New Mexico can get retirement benefits with five years of service.
More than 100 other lawmakers have collected about $15 million in state pensions while still holding office.
They serve in states that allow double dipping for legislators but bar other workers from getting state pensions while holding state or municipal jobs.
This whole system reeks of blatant greed that allows lawmakers to treat themselves differently.
This is occurring at the same time that legislators are cutting basic state services and slashing benefits of other state workers.
Alabama is one of only 10 states that do not allow pensions or retirement benefits for legislators.
In fact, our constitution prohibits any state political officeholder from accruing or receiving any retirement benefits.
Our legislature deserves a pat on the back for having the fortitude to forego any efforts to circumvent this constitutional prohibition.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 75 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.