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Local lawmaker says Gunn is trying to force him and others to choose between retirement benefits he’s earned or service as elected official
A dispute between four freshmen state legislators and powerful Speaker of the House Philip Gunn over whether they can hold the political office and draw their state retirements from previous public service jobs continues to brew in Jackson.
Perry County resident Dale Goodin, who was elected to serve Perry County and the rest of House District 105 this past November, and three other newcomers to the House of Representatives, say they were looking forward to going to Jackson and working on issues they had promised voters they would address.
However, shortly after being sworn into their new offices, they discovered their first fight would not be over policy or new legislation, but instead would be with Gunn, a member of their own political party, who says their service in the legislature would amount to ‘double dipping’ on the backs of state taxpayers.
“I believed this issue was already resolved before I took office,” Goodin said. “I’m very disappointed in Speaker Gunn for the part he is playing in this.”
“I actually save the state money by retiring and becoming a representative, because I made more money while I was still going to work every day.”
Goodin retired after spending 30 years in education as a teacher and administrator. Jerry Darnell, a freshmen representative from Desoto County, was also an educator. The other two first-time representatives being asked to give up retirement pay, Ramona Blackledge and Billy Andrews, worked in county government prior to being elected. Blackledge was the Jones County Tax Assessor/Collector, and Andrews served as both a county and youth court judge.
The four thought they would be able to serve and draw their retirement benefits because early in 2019 the Public Employees Retirement System Board began steps to remove a long-standing regulation that prevented state and local government retirees and retired public educators from drawing their monthly pension while serving in the Legislature. This past December, the PERS Board took the final step to remove the regulation.
But Gunn is saying the action of PERS conflicts with existing state law and that he also opposes it because the legislators will be drawing two checks from the state – one for their legislative pay and one for their retirement.
“It is not right for taxpayers to have to fund both,” said Gunn.
Under the regulation passed by PERS, legislators could receive their retirement dollars if they only draw a percentage of their pay from the Legislature – 50 or 25 percent of the average of their high four years as a state employee. The regulation follows existing state law for re-employment by public employees in other state jobs, for example, if someone retiring from public school teaching went to a part-time job in the Department of Transportation.
House Speaker Phillip Gunn believes that the PERS decision is irrelevant due to a state law, and the representatives are “double dipping” by receiving two checks from the state.
Andrews and Goodin told Mississippi Today Speaker Gunn had indicated the House Management Committee on which he serves and which is chaired by Speaker Pro Tem Jason White, R-West, a key Gunn ally, will not agree to pay them a smaller percentage of their legislative pay. If they receive their full legislative salary, they will lose their retirement pay. Legislative pay is essentially $10,000 annually for each session and $1,500 per month when out of session. In addition, they receive a per diem.
Goodin and others say if the issue is not resolved, there is a possibility of a lawsuit where the representatives would go to court to try to receive both retirement and legislative pay. Another option would be for the law to be changed stating that retired representatives can get their pension and pay. The law being changed is unlikely though, according to Goodin.
“Gunn has said he will not support the law to be changed,” says Goodin.
While all four representatives involved are Republicans, like Gunn, Goodin says the issue boils down to party politics as the state official who originally thought the PERS regulation was incorrect was former Attorney General Jim Hood, who issued an official opinion saying that the PERS Board was violating existing law by preventing their retirees from serving in the Legislature and drawing their pension. The PERS regulation was based on a law that states that PERS retirees can serve in local elected offices, such as for supervisor or city council. Since the law does not specifically mention legislators, PERS reasoned they were not covered by the law.
But the opinion from Hood’s office cites another state law that says public employee retirees can go to work part time in any governmental job. The office of legislator could be viewed as a part-time job since many members also work in other fields, such as attorneys, funeral home directors, farmers, insurance agents and in a host of other fields.
Hood is a Democrat and just left office after an unsuccessful campaign to become the Governor of Mississippi. In a press release issued on Tuesday, Goodin’s office said Republican representatives such as Gunn believe the PERS change was Hood’s way to get more Democrats into the legislature, and they argue that newly elected Attorney General Lynn Fitch, also a Republican, may issue a different opinion.
“This is Washington politics being brought to Jackson,” Andrews said. “Just because it came from a Democrat, that does not mean it is wrong. And besides if the goal was to elect Democrats, it failed. We are all Republican.”
Blackledge, who defeated long-time incumbent Republican Gary Staples to capture the District 88 seat, agreed.
“I am just astonished we are not being supported by the leadership,” said Blackledge. “I just feel this is an injustice and unfair to the people of District 88 and circumventing their vote.”
Goodin said the situation amounted to “punishment” against people that have served in education, the court system, government, etc.
“We need people that have different experiences and worked in some of the areas needing improvement to be part of the Legislature,” Goodin said. “We have more important work to do than worry about this.”
“People chose all four of us that are being placed in this position to be their representative and to work to improve issues that affect them. We should be focused on that, and not if we are going to lose money we earned throughout our careers before wanting to serve our state and communities.”
The Mississippi Retired Public Employees Association (MRPEA) has put out their own statement about the issue along with phone numbers for Speaker Gunn and the State Capitol, so people can voice their displeasure. On social media, individuals are speaking out on their own.
“It’s not like their retirement is that much money,” says Heather Wilson of Purvis. “If they had worked in the private sector, they could still get their retirement. And God knows we need retired educators in office.”
“They don’t want people who are, or rather were, state employees to be able to make laws that might actually improve things for other state employees,” says Andrea McSwain of New Augusta. “Apparently, they didn’t hear us clearly during this last election.”