AG opinion could pave way for state retirees to seek public office

By HASKEL BURNS,

Although Ben Burnett has had notions in the past of serving in the Mississippi Legislature, he had never given it real consideration, given that he would have had to suspend his pension as a retired state employee as per regulations from the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi.

A recent opinion issued by Attorney General Jim Hood, which says those regulations contradict state law and other PERS regulations, could change that. But any run by Burnett, who currently serves as Dean of Education at William Carey University and has been retired from the state for about four and a half years, would be some time down the road.

“In the back of my mind, it’s something I would like to do some day, to continue to serve my area,” said Burnett, who previously served as Lamar County School District superintendent, as well as a band director/teacher. “So those (regulations) have been a major roadblock, because I would not be able to come out of retirement if that’s what it took.

“In my opinion, the current practice of not allowing state retirees to run for the Legislature is discriminatory, because by PERS regulations, retirees can still work part-time for the state if it doesn’t exceed more than 50 percent of their salary and more than 50 percent of their work time. And being in the Legislature, although you’re constantly thinking and probably working on stuff, it is a part-time job with a part-time salary. But I love my current job at William Carey, and I work for a great boss in Dr. (Tommy) King. I think he’d probably be flexible and allow me to do that, but I would have to cross that bridge – it’s not just the AG’s opinion; I have no intention of leaving William Carey University.”

Hood’s opinion, which was issued Nov. 29 in response to a request from Sen. Sollie B. Norwood, states a PERS retiree who serves as a senator of representative in the Legislature does not forfeit PERS retirement benefits, and PERS may not terminate the payment of those benefits if the retiree satisfies the requirements of Mississippi Code 25-11-127 (1) and (4). According to the opinion, PERS has 321,494 members throughout the state, including teachers, school superintendents and police officers.

PERS Executive Director Ray Higgins said that his office is aware of Hood’s opinion.

“However, we had no prior input in this matter,” he said. “Due to the importance of PERS, our regulations, and their potential impact on the system and its members, this item requires thorough consideration prior to taking action or commenting further. The AG’s opinion in under review by agency leadership.”

When Casey Mercier – who served in the United States Air Force, Mississippi Air National Guard and the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services – ran for Mississippi House District 102 last year, he was aware of the PERS restrictions and was willing to suspend his benefits if he had been elected. Mercier, who also spent 17 years at Jones County Junior College, said he’s very much in favor of Hood’s opinion.

“What it’s done is given the Legislature the opportunity to have people involved who know government from the inside,” he said. “And teachers as well, who best know the policies and shortcomings of government in education and the people who limit it. So it’d be great for these guys to be on the inside and sharing their ideas with everybody.”

In fact, Mercier would even consider a future run in light of the opinion.

“I was considering one anyway, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said. “If the right opportunity came up, I would very much consider it. But that’s the main reason I ran the first time – I was going to put all (my PERS) benefits on hold, to try and get this law changed.”

Missy McGee, who currently serves as Mississippi House District 102 representative, said she’s also in favor of Hood’s opinion because it would allow individuals of different perspectives to serve in the Legislature.

“It’s a good thing, and it would be beneficial,” she said. 

Sen. Joey Fillingane of Sumrall said he has no problem with state retirees serving in the Legislature, although he can see why someone could argue that it was a conflict of interest.

“I think probably why the prohibition was put in place, some time way before my time, is because … you are at once receiving the benefits, and at the same time you have the ability to vote on bills that would directly affect the retirement plan that you’re getting benefits from,” he said. 

John Corley, who represents Mississippi House District 106, said there is an incentive for retired teachers to come back and teach part-time in math and science areas.

“That’s because there’s a shortage (there), but there’s no shortage in people running for office,” he said. “The Legislature is more of a full-time position than a part-time position, even though it is part-time pay.

“So I think (Hood) should look into whether it could be made a full-time position, rather than a continuous part-time position. But I’m fine with it either way, because I believe it’s more of a calling, and the motives should be correct for running for office – (it’s) not for the money.”