Summer session is special for Texas Legislators
By JANET ELLIOTT, CLAY ROBISON, Austin Bureau Staff
AUSTIN - The House and Senate haven't agreed on how to cut school property taxes, but both chambers approved bills Tuesday that would boost their own pensions.
The House used a nonrecorded voice vote Tuesday to pass a bill to raise judicial pay and lawmakers' pensions, while Senators voted on the record with two senators casting "no" votes on similar legislation.
Since 1975, legislative pensions have been calculated as a portion of a district judge's salary.
Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, said judicial salaries need to be increased to keep experienced judges from leaving the bench for private practice. But he said he cast a "protest vote" against the bill because it links a district judge's salary to lawmakers' pension benefits.
"I'm just down on that," said Janek.
Currently, lawmakers earn $7,200 a year in pay, and retired lawmakers can begin collecting pensions at age 50 if they have served for at least 12 years.
Under the House and Senate bills, a retired official with 12 years' experience would get $6,431 more a year for a total pension of $34,500. Benefits increase with each year of service.
Gov. Rick Perry called a 30-day special session to address school property taxes and how public schools are funded.
He initially said he would not add other issues to the agenda until lawmakers reached an agreement, which they are still working to do. The session ends July 20.
But on Monday, Perry added judicial pay to the special session proclamation, and both the House and Senate acted swiftly Tuesday, suspending rules to give the bills final passage. House Speaker Tom Craddick said the bill was passed on a voice vote because no legislator asked for a record vote.
Perry has further expanded the session to include legislation relating to eminent domain , tuition revenue bonds for university construction projects, telecommunications industry overhaul and renewable energy.
The judicial pay legislation, similar to a proposal that died in the closing days of the regular session earlier this year, would increase the state pay for a state district judge from $101,000 to $125,000 a year.
Limit on supplementary pay
Counties could continue to supplement those salaries, but only up to an additional $7,500 a year, for a total salary of $132,500.
That would mean a pay raise of only $4,000 a year for state district judges in Harris County, where county commissioners would be forced to lower their supplement from $27,500 to $7,500.
Since 2003, Harris and a few other urban counties have had no limit on how much they can add to a judge's pay to attract and retain qualified individuals.
Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, said district judges' salaries should be kept below appellate court salaries to encourage trial judges to run for higher office.
Judges on the Courts of Appeals would see their pay boosted from $107,000 to $137,500 a year, and members of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals would get their $113,000 salaries raised to $150,000.
Earlier Tuesday, the Senate approved a similar judicial pay raise bill and added a provision that would boost public funding for lawyers assigned to defend indigent criminal defendants.
That House opposed that provision - which would add $ 3to fees charged people convicted of criminal offenses, including traffic violations - during the regular session.
That new levy would be in addition to a $4 fee increase for each criminal case and a $37 increase in filing fees for each civil lawsuit to pay for judges' raises.
The additional pension payments will cost the state $4 million a year. Because the bills are somewhat different, however, a conference committee likely will be appointed to try to reach a compromise on the versions.
The pay bill also could affect the pay for Houston's mayor and City Council members.
A 1977 law sets the mayor's salary at 150 percent of a district judge's salary; while the city controller is to be paid exactly as much as a judge.
Council members' salaries are set at 40 percent of that figure.
`Simply endorse the check'
During debate Tuesday, Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio, asked if there is "any mechanism for a legislator to refuse a pension increase."
"It would be very easy for any legislator to simply endorse the check to the state of Texas," replied Hartnett.
Senate leaders defended their higher retirement benefits, even as they prepared to consider another bill that could reduce retirement benefits for teachers to address a shortfall in the Teacher Retirement System.
"I've always felt like the compensation package for legislators is out of whack," said Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.
"If I were king, we'd pass a bill that says our pay and our retirement is the same as a classroom teacher. We're not there yet, and in this short period of time the primary fact is that judges need a pay raise," Ogden said.
Teachers' retirement age
A separate bill the Senate may debate later this week would make several changes to the Teacher Retirement System, including raising the minimum retirement age to 60.
Linda Bridges, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, said the bill "is taking us backwards in our efforts to attract and retain quality teachers."
"The Teacher Retirement System deserves to be solvent. We need to pass a bill so that the Teacher Retirement System doesn't look like Social Security and we have to stand up here and say it's going to be bankrupt in 10 years," Ogden said.