New rep had to choose between retirement check, legislative seat
Newly-elected state Representative Ramona Blackledge was given two choices — give up her state retirement check or resign from the Legislature.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn has said that Blackledge and three other members of the freshman class of legislators would be “double-dipping” if they get their full pay from the House and their Public Employment Retirement System check.
Blackledge and the other three were willing to work for 25 percent of the established PERS salary, forgo the Legislature’s retirement program and per diem for food and lodging … and Gunn still refused, she wrote on a Facebook post: “All four of us were willing to do that (so) we could serve. Double dipping? Hahahahaha!”
Blackledge decided to resign instead of giving up her PERS check.
“I worked for over 40 years to get (that),” she wrote. “It is my primary income.”
Blackledge served as Jones County’s tax assessor/collector for several terms before beating longtime District 88 Rep. Gary Staples for the seat. Both are Republicans, as is Gunn. The other three who are also in the same dilemma are also Republicans, including Dale Goodin of Richton, Billy Andrews of Lamar County and Jerry Darnell of DeSoto County. Goodin and Darnell are retired educators and Andrews is a former House member who went on to serve as a judge in Lamar County.
“It’s good-ole-boy government at its finest,” Blackledge said. “Sometimes there’s no reasoning in politics. That’s why I always liked being a public servant instead of a ‘politician.’ Big difference.”
The local legislative seat will likely be filled by a special election. The next time county voters will go to the polls is for the presidential primaries on March 10. That’s when the race would likely be on the ballot. Staples and Chris Hodge also ran for the seat in the last election.
The four freshmen legislators thought they would be able to serve and draw their retirement benefits, according to a report by Laurel native and longtime Legislature reporter Bobby Harrison wrote in Mississippi Today. That's because the PERS 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. In December, the PERS Board took the final step to remove the regulation.
But now 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,” Gunn said.
“We earned this retirement, but he (Gunn) is not budging,” he said. “If we (public employee retirees) serve, it will actually save the Legislature money.”
Under the regulation passed by PERS, legislators could draw their retirement benefit if they only draw a portion of their legislative pay — 50 percent or 25 percent of the average of their high four years as government workers. The regulation follows existing state law for re-employment by public employees in other government jobs.
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.
“I am just astonished we are not being supported by the leadership,” Blackledge said. “I just feel this is an injustice and unfair to the people of District 88 and circumventing their vote.”
Andrews indicated that a lawsuit might be filed over the issue if Gunn does not allow them to receive reduced legislative pay. The other options would be for the members to resign, or to serve while sacrificing their retirement pay or to change the law to state specifically that retirees can serve in the Legislature and receive their pension. Andrews said it is not likely that the law could be changed if the speaker opposes the change.
The freshmen members have been reluctant to discuss the issue publicly because they did not want to be seen as opposing a speaker of their own party.
But Andrews said the speaker has indicated to him that the issue was put in motion by former Democrat Attorney General Jim Hood to help elect Democrats to the Legislature and that new Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch might issue a different opinion. In 2018, Hood 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 stating 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 most members also work in other fields.
Andrews said the speaker is trying to block them from serving because the Democrat Hood issued the ruling.
“This is Washington politics being brought to Jackson,” Andrews said.
Various pro education groups hailed the change in PERS regulations. They said it would be a positive for the state to allow retired educators to serve in the Legislature. While only two of the four serving in the House because of the PERS ruling are retired educators and various education groups have voiced support for all four.
Most employees of state and local governments, public K-12 and university employees, participate in the retirement system, contributing 9 percent of their salary for retirement benefits.
According to PERS data, the average benefit is more than $23,100 annually for the more than 100,000 people drawing benefits. In total, according to the AG opinion, more than 300,000 are in the public employees retirement system either drawing benefits, having paid into the system or currently paying into the system.
— Bobby Harrison, a Laurel native and longtime Legislature reporter for Mississippi Today, contributed
to this report