Wisconsin Reporter | Packing on the pensions

Findings from TUA’s pension projects on Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are featured in this story from the Wisconsin Reporter.

packingonthepensionsBy M.D. Kittle and Alyssa Hertig | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – The good people of Wisconsin’s 6th Congressional District first elected Tom Petri to serve as their representative in the U.S. House in a special election in April 1979.

Times have changed in Wisconsin and national politics, but the 6th District’s representative hasn’t.

Now into his 18th term, Petri, a Fond du Lac Republican, is a fixture of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation. He also is the beneficiary of a $174,000 annual salary and will ultimately benefit from what the National Taxpayers Union calls the “single most personally valuable perk to a Member of Congress” – his federal government pension plan.

As it stands, the veteran congressman expects to earn a pension north of $100,000 per year, based on his earnings and what would be his 36 years in Congress upon the close of his latest term.

“Congressional pensions are typically 2-3 times more generous than those offered to similarly-salaried workers in the private sector, and are even more generous than pensions for most federal workers,” the National Taxpayers Union asserts on its website.

But Petri isn’t waiting to draw a federal pension. The long-serving lawmaker came to Congress after a six-year political career in the Wisconsin state Senate.

Last year, Petri collected $14,878 from his Wisconsin Retirement System pension, in which he was vested after five years of public service.

In 2011, Petri received $14,950 in legislative pension payments, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Since 2008, the congressman has pocketed some $64,000 in state legislative pension payments, according CRP, a campaign fundraising and political information tracker. Admittedly, the pension payments are a drop in the bucket for a lawmaker whose net worth, placed somewhere between $9.52 million and $45.41 million, ranks him 22th wealthiest among his House peers, according to CRP.

Petri sees nothing wrong with cashing the pension checks he rightfully earned.

“Rep. Petri simply believes that he earned his state pension through his public service in the state legislature and he has chosen to take it at this time,” Petri spokesman Lee Brooks said in an email to Wisconsin Reporter.

But to critics, the practice of congressional members drawing government pensions while building potentially hefty federal pensions stinks of double-dipping.

That’s how Petri’s fellow Wisconsin congressman, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, sees it.

“It does smack of a bit of double-dipping,” he told Wisconsin Reporter. “That’s an increased financial burden on taxpayers.”

Kind, who began his congressional career in 1997, is not eligible for a state public sector pension. The congressman served as La Crosse County’s assistant district attorney for about four years, and as a practicing attorney before that. He said he’s hopeful his congressional brethren will “delve into” the issue, following the lead of states that have curtailed the practice of drawing from other public pensions while still being paid to serve the public.

After eight terms in office, Kind is looking at an annual federal pension of $53,244.

A side of retirement

Petri is among three members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to draw a state pension, according to financial disclosure reports posted on the Center for Responsive Politics.

U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, in 2011 collected $13,628 in legislative pension payments, and $7,770 from the Wisconsin Deferred Compensation Fund,   a supplemental retirement savings program available to all active state and university employees. Moore served two terms in the Wisconsin state Assembly and three terms in the state Senate. Before that, she worked for the city of Milwaukee as a neighborhood development specialist and for state agencies such as the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

In 2010, Moore drew a $13,628 legislative pension, and $27,418 in deferred compensation. Her pension in 2009 was $12,440.

As of July 30, Moore had yet to file her financial disclosure for 2012. She asked for and received an extension to file her annual Financial Disclosure Statement Report, due by Aug. 13.

In 2011, Moore claimed her net worth was $0, with assets of between $50,001 and $100,000. The Center for Responsive Politics ranked the congresswoman 406th among House members in terms of wealth.

The 4th District congresswoman, should she retire in 2015, would draw an estimated $29,580 federal pension, based on a formula that applies years of congressional service and the average of the three highest years’ salaries upon leaving office. Other adjustments are made for age at retirement and marital status.

Moore’s office did not respond to Wisconsin Reporter’s request for comment.

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, also sought a 90-day extension on his 2012 financial disclosure, now due Aug. 13.  The congressman, who has served the 5th Congressional District since 1979, pocketed a $29,861 state pension payout in 2011, the benefit of his decade in the state Legislature.

Sensenbrenner, who ranked 34th in the House in personal wealth in 2011 with a net worth pegged somewhere between $13.42 million and $18.98 million, according to CRP, has collected nearly $100,000 in state pension payments since 2008.

The long-time politician would collect an annual federal pension payout of well above $150,000 for 36 years of service under the old Civil Service Retirement System, which covers members of Congress elected before 1984. Members can opt out of the CSRS for the lower paying Federal Employees’ Retirement System, although few do. Sensenbrenner’s annual federal retirement check is estimated at $106,000 under the FERS plan.

In Congress, retiring lawmakers get pensions worth up to 80 percent of their $174,000 salary — or $139,200 — if they serve 32 years, according to a 2011 piece in USA Today. The average pension for 455 retired federal lawmakers is $57,590, according to the Congressional Research Service.

It’s all government money

Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics said the term “double-dipping,” is somewhat apt, although congressional members drawing state pensions are not drawing from the same funds.

“On one hand, it’s all government money,” she said. “I would say it is interesting. There is no clear-cut case of nefariousness or conflict of interest. These are people who are perfectly, legally entitled to their pension.

But Bryner said the pension data poses an important question: whether members of Congress are out of touch with their constituency.

“Sensenbrenner is good example of someone quite wealthy and collecting a (state) pension,” Bryner said.

The Wisconsin congressman, however, runs nowhere near the top earners of public pension payouts among congressional members.

U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-California, pocketed $54,925 in pension payments for her time as mayor of San Francisco, according to CRP and a recent investigation in the National Journal.  Feinstein has received about $850,000 in retirement benefits over the past two decades, according to the magazine. Feinstein ranked as the second-wealthiest member of Congress to collect a pension in 2012, according to CRP, which estimates the senator’s net worth somewhere between $42.8 million and $98.7 million.

“One lawmaker, freshman Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, received $253,323 from her government pension last year — a sum that, combined with her congressional salary, will make her better paid than President Obama this year,” the National Journal piece noted.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, at 90, is the oldest member of the House. According to the National Journal, Hall spent a decade in the Texas Legislature before beginning his hold on his congressional seat.

“The Republican (who was a Democrat until 2004) has been collecting a Texas state pension ever since. In those 32 years he earned some $1.3 million in retirement benefits. (Many years in the 1980s he didn’t list specific amounts; this analysis presumes his pension remained flat during those years.)” the magazine reported. Hall collected a pension of $65,748 in 2012.

More than 100 members of Congress collected public pensions atop their taxpayer-financed $174,000 salary in 2012, according to the National Journal examination.

Then there are the multi-public pension accruers.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a former U.S. representative, is eligible for an annual federal pension of around $25,000 a year for his five terms in Congress. The Democrat also earns an estimated state pension of about $7,200 per year, a benefit he collects for his service in the state Legislature. An analysis by Taxpayers United of America projects Barrett could earn nearly $3 million in pension benefits from the city of Milwaukee and in Social Security, over his lifetime, depending on age of retirement and length of life.

Some members of Congress who are eligible for a public pension choose not to collect it.

Bryner said that might send a message of fiscal responsibility to constituents, but there may be little substance beyond the symbolism.

“It doesn’t seem in most cases that a person’s pension is going to have a significant affect on their behavior in Congress,” the campaign finance tracker said.

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