The days when Louisiana legislators could manipulate retirement laws to their advantage pretty much ended in 1997. However, as some readers reminded me recently, there are always exceptions to everything.
Prior to Jan. 2, 1997, legislators and other part-time public officials were eligible to join retirement systems, and many of them did.
Former state Sen. Tommy Casanova, R-Crowley, and current Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, were co-sponsors of the amendment. Casanova said the change would bring more stability to an overburdened retirement system. Thompson said it would restore confidence in government.
One part of the amendment was difficult for some to accept. It said the change wouldn’t apply to any part-time public officials who were in office Jan. 1, 1997, and who were members of a retirement system.
Casanova said it wouldn’t have been fair to remove any public official who was eligible for benefits. Here is what the American Press said about that provision in an April 14, 1996, editorial:
“If that’s the trade-off for getting the amendment to the people — we’ll reluctantly acquiesce to those terms,” the newspaper said.
The constitutional amendment that ended retirement benefits for part-time public officials was approved by 70 percent of the voters.
Perhaps the best way to explain the effects of the 1997 amendment is to talk about how it has affected two Lake Charles public officials.
State Sen. Willie Mount was mayor of Lake Charles in 1997, and state Rep. A.B. Franklin was a city councilman. The mayor’s office is a fulltime job, so Mount didn’t qualify as a part-time public official. However, Franklin was a part-timer, and he can count his legislative years of service towards his retirement.
Part-timers listed in the 1997 amendment were legislators, school board and levee board members, police jurors, parish councilmen, members of city, city-parish or town councils, aldermen, constables and members of boards and commissions.
Mike Hasten of Gannett News wrote about those who were exempt (grandfathered) under the 1997 amendment when an ill-fated legislative pay raise was considered in 2008. Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed the raise.
“Seventeen Louisiana lawmakers, five of whom are freshmen, would receive a double boost if a proposed legislative pay raise is accepted by the Senate,” Hasten wrote.
Franklin was listed as one of the five freshmen who qualified for retirement benefits under the 1997 amendment. The others were former police jurors, school board members or parish councilmen.
The other 12 were legislators who were already participating in the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System. Ten of them are still serving in the Legislature.
One attorney I spoke with took exception to people saying those 17 were taking advantage of a loophole in the 1996 law that changed the constitution. She said it was their legal right to claim those benefits, which is pretty much what Casanova said in 1996.
Some legislators who qualified for retirement have gone on to higherpaying public jobs, and that has enhanced their pension benefits. The benefits are based on the official’s three highest salary years.
That is why there has been speculation that Mount is running for Calcasieu Parish tax assessor to increase her retirement benefits. I contacted the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System to get clarification on Mount’s retirement status.
Here is part of the legal opinion I received:
“On Jan, 1, 1997, Sen. Mount was serving as mayor of Lake Charles. Because the position of mayor is not one of the positions set forth in Article X, Section 29.1 (of the constitution), Sen. Mount does not fall within the grandfather provision of Article X, Section 29.1.
“This means that Sen. Mount was not eligible for membership in LASERS as a senator, and is not eligible for membership in any retirement system as a part-time elected or appointed official.”
The law is clear. Mount was a fulltime mayor in 1997 and can’t count her 12 years of legislative service towards any state retirement system. Franklin, on the other hand, was a part-time councilman and can count his legislative service.
Mount did contribute to the Municipal Employees Retirement System during the six years she served as Lake Charles mayor. However, she withdrew those contributions when she left office.
Those six years could be used for retirement benefits in either the municipal or assessor retirement systems if she is elected, but she would have to repay the contributions plus interest. Mount said this week she has no plans to do so.
Legislators have continued to reform the state’s retirement laws at almost every session. And the state’s $18 billion retirement debt makes it imperative that they step up those efforts.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].