How Legislators Grab Big Pensions
A move into higher-paying state jobs greatly increases their pensions.
It’s a decades-old practice used by governors of both parties:
Give legislators at the end of their careers higher-paying jobs that boost their state pensions. It’s been used to hand out favors and flip control of a seat in the Legislature from one party to the other.
But, depending on what the new job pays, it can almost double the ex-legislator’s pension. And there is often no connection between the new job and the ex-legislators’ professional experience or training.
In 1991, then-Gov. Tommy G. Thompson gave former Republican Sen. Richard Kreul a state job, boosting his pension.
In 1993, Thompson gave former Democratic Sen. Marv Roshell another appointment. The appointment boosted Roshell’s pension and opened the door for Republican, ex-Sen. Dave Zien, to win that Senate seat.
Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle gave former Republican Sen. Carol Roessler, from Oshkosh, a supervisory job at the State Department of Revenue.
Doyle also named former Democratic Sen. Roger Breske, who ran for the Senate as president of the Tavern League of Wisconsin , state railroad commissioner in 2008.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker replaced Breske with ex-Democratic Sen. Jeff Plale (then based in South Milwaukee). Plale’s official resume listed his pre-Senate career experience as a “former investment agent.”
The most recent examples of this practice was the resignation of Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, of Abbotsford, who was in line for a $94,000-a-year job as an executive with the Public Service Commission, and the resignation of Greendale-based Republican Rep. Jeff Stone, who leaves the Assembly on Wednesday.
Suder would have received an 88% pay raise, since the annual salary of legislators has been fixed at $49,943 for several years. Legislators also get a daily expense stipend, depending on where they live, and some travel expenses.
Suder first accepted the PSC job, then turned it down to become the Wisconsin Paper Council’s lobbyist.
When that happened, Stone announced his resignation from the Assembly to take the PSC job promised to Suder.
The Suder-to-Stone appointment offers a glimpse at how much an ex-legislator’s pension can be raised by taking a higher-paying gubernatorial appointment.
Although the Department of Employee Trust Funds, which oversees the pension system, won’t discuss the pensions of specific individuals, they will respond to generic examples.
So, here’s what ETF reported when confronted with these examples:
*A legislator who serves for 10 years, and whose highest salary was $49,493 for their final years, would get a pension of $589, or $7,068 per year, at age 62.
That’s the Scott Suder example; he was elected to the Assembly in 1998.
*A legislator who serves for 10 years, and who was paid $49,943 as a legislator but who then takes a $94,000-a-year state job, and who keeps that job for three years, would get a pension of $1,107, or $13,284, at age 62.
That’s the Jeff Stone example, even though Stone’s official salary won’t be set until he formally accepts the PSC job. He can’t do that he officially leaves the Assembly on Wednesday.
Stone, who was also elected to the Assembly in 1998, should at least get the $94,000-a-year salary that Suder was promised.
So, if Stone holds the PSC job for three years, his state pension will be 87% higher than if he had left the Assembly for a private-sector job.
If you think that’s unfair – and a fringe benefit not available to private-sector workers who live in a world where defined-benefit pensions are going away — you’re not alone.
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, agrees with you.
“This practice is a throwback to patronage politics and the ‘spoils system’ that was commonplace throughout the country and in Wisconsin until a lot of it was cleaned up in late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Heck said.
“This one survived the reforms, much like legislators exempting themselves from state open meetings law.”
Arrogant governors think they can reward their legislative pals and allies with higher-paying jobs, Heck said, adding:
“But it may also be because they can get away with it because there are so many other things that anger and outrage citizens about state government. Perhaps citizens don’t expect better behavior anymore from politicians — which is exactly what the politicians want, so they can continue to get away with it.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email firstname.lastname@example.org