Kansas state Sen. Rob Olson sure stirred things up in the Statehouse last week.
Olson, an Olathe Republican, halted debate on a pension bill when he offered an amendment that would ban elected officials from participating in the state retirement system after 2018.
“I don’t believe it’s the taxpayers’ role to fund a pension for us,” Olson told his surprised colleagues.
That went over about as well as the Jayhawks’ loss in the Elite Eight. Olson later withdrew his amendment with a promise to return to the idea next year. But Olson is onto something here.
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For years, lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri have supplemented fairly low pay with generous pension plans. While the plans weren’t hidden from public view, most taxpayers know little about them. They were covered in shadows, and that’s always an issue in government, which must remain transparent at all times.
We have an idea for legislative pensions: Get rid of them. Our citizen lawmakers are elected to part-time legislatures typically only for a few years. In Missouri, state law mandates that legislators can serve only eight years in the House and another eight in the Senate.
Legislative “careers” of six or eight years aren’t long enough to merit a generous pension.
But as we’ve advocated before, lawmakers should raise their pay. The jobs they do are important, and lawmakers have an unusually heavy workload for nearly half a year. They have duties during the other half as well, including meetings with constituents. Higher pay would encourage more residents to run for these important offices. It also would offset the loss of pensions.
In Missouri, lawmakers earn $35,915 a year. There, the higher pay could be offset by shrinking the size of the House from an unwieldy 163 members to 120. In Kansas, lawmakers earn just short of $8,000 for a typical 90-day session. That’s mighty cheap labor.
Ending the pension programs would remove suspicions that lawmakers are feathering their own nests through public service. In Missouri, legislative pensions aren’t as robust as they used to be. But lawmakers can still draw larger pensions than state workers earning similar pay.
In Kansas, lawmakers get special deals. They can sign up for full-time pension benefits despite their part-time standing. The head of a state workers union once called that “not fair or appropriate.” Former public officials who were in office when that deal came down have no recollection of how it came about.
The states’ retirement systems are underfunded anyway, so this step would help with that problem, too. Both states need a simpler, more transparent approach to compensating our lawmakers.