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Last man standing

In 1990, voters told lawmakers “don’t get too comfortable.” They passed Proposition 140, a sweeping term-limits reform package that limited legislators to 14 years of service under the Capitol dome–including a maximum of three terms in the Assembly and two terms in the Senate.

Legislative leaders are now trying to undo part of Proposition 140, and allow themselves a little more time in their current seats. But it’s been a while since anybody dared mess with the other important element of Proposition 140–the part of the law that stripped legislators of the hefty pensions they enjoyed under California’s Legislators Retirement System.

“They had set up very lucrative pensions for themselves,” said Lew Uhler, founder of the National Tax Limitation Committee and one of the authors of Proposition 140. “We wanted to take away any incentive driven by that.”

And so, lawmakers were left to fend for themselves in the Social Security system, just like the rest of us.

But you might be surprised to learn that 17 years after Proposition 140, the LRS is alive and well–and some lawmakers are still enjoying the benefit. Well, one lawmaker is. More on that later.

Proposition 140 only kicked legislators off of the retirement rolls. It didn’t take the benefit away from constitutional officers, or statutory officers like the clerk of Assembly or secretary of the Senate. So even newly elected statewide officers, like Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, can join if they want to.

And, in 1991, several incumbent legislators took Proposition 140 to the California Supreme Court, arguing that stripping sitting legislators of their retirement benefits was unconstitutional. The court agreed, so anybody elected prior to November 1, 1990, was grandfathered in.

There have been attempts to undo the pension ban. In 2000, voters trounced Proposition 33, which would have let lawmakers back into the LRS, by more than 20 points.

And over time, the group of beneficiaries steadily declined as lawmakers termed out and as lawmakers died.

By 2004, there were just 17 active members in the system–those still working and paying into the fund. At that time 275 retirees or their survivors were getting a check.

According to CalPERS spokesperson Edd Fong, there are now just 271 people receiving benefits and 11 active members. The average LRS pension is just over $26,000 a year. Six of them are constitutional officers, four are statutory officers, and just one active member is a sitting legislator.

Unlike the state workers pension system, the LRS is doing pretty well. The LRS is what is known as “superfunded”–meaning there’s more money in the LRS account than is needed to pay its beneficiaries. In fact, a CalPERS report from 2006 shows the LRS was about $24 million in the black–not bad for a pension fund with such a small exclusive membership.

Officials from CalPERS, which administers the LRS–did not respond to a request for the names of the active members of the system by press time. And that left veteran Capitol Weekly editors to speculate about who that last legislator earning an LRS pension might be.

It could be Assembly member Chuck Calderon. First elected to the Assembly in 1982, he would be able to slip through the LRS loophole. But if you guessed Calderon, you’re wrong.

It’s Mervyn Dymally. He first was elected to the Assembly in 1963, served as a state senator and a term as lieutenant governor before moving on to the U.S. Congress. Since he returned to the Assembly in 2002, and has lots of time on his term-limits meter, he’s still eligible to participate in the LRS.

But unless someone else gets elected who served in Legislature before 1990, the era of big pensions for lawmakers is almost over.

“It’s interesting that we’re at the end of the line,” said Uhler. “It’s proof that a government program really can be ended.”

Even if it takes 17 years to end it.

Contact Cosmo Garvin at cosmo.garvin@capitolweekly.net

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