If you have violated the public trust, should taxpayers fund your retirement?
I think it’s safe to say that most people would answer “no” to this question. Right now, these felonious public officials still get their state retirement benefits. That may change during this year’s legislative session, however.
Legislators have introduced two bills that would end pensions for elected officials and government employees who are convicted for actions arising out of their jobs. These bills are designed to punish people who misuse their positions to commit crimes. Senators Mark Johnson and Ronald Caldwell and Reps. Grant Hodges and Mark Lowery have introduced SB 52 and Senator Gary Stubblefield and Rep. Dan Sullivan have introduced SB 53. Both bills have similar goals but take different paths to get there.
SB 52 says that if a government employee is convicted of or pleads guilty to a felony act arising out of his or her official actions, that employee loses state retirement benefits. If that conviction is reversed, then the retirement benefits are restored.
SB 53 goes into more detail. It specifies that any public employee or elected official who is convicted of or pleads guilty to a felony arising out of his or her official action loses state retirement benefits. It specifies that the felon will receive back any contributions he or she made to the retirement system, minus the amount they have already received in benefits from the state. If the conviction is overturned or the person is pardoned, then the retirement benefits can be restored.
Both these bills have some good points. If a person abuses the public trust, the public should not be paying for his or her retirement benefits. That is certainly true of elected officials, such as judges and legislators. Arkansas has too much experience with corrupt elected officials, so this is a long-overdue corrective. Many states have similar laws.
SB 53 is the more detailed bill, so it has some advantages over SB 52. Some people could charge that SB 52 unilaterally changes the nature of retirement benefits for state employees. Under SB 53, employees are deemed to consent to these changes when they are promoted or change job classifications. For elected officials, it would only apply to those elected or re-elected in 2020 or later. Under these clauses, employees and elected officials would be informed and consent to be governed by this law’s change to the retirement system. If applied retroactively, this type of legislation is vulnerable to constitutional challenges under the theory that it impairs a contract. Some provisions in SB 53 appear to be an attempt to resolve this issue, although it is unclear if the provisions go far enough.
While it appears clear that SB 52 also applies to elected officials, since they are state employees that participate in the state retirement system, SB 53 makes it explicit that elected officials (including judges) are covered. Considering the state’s track record of felonious legislators, it’s probably a good idea to make it explicit that this pension revocation applies to them.
It will be interesting to see how these bills fare in this year’s legislative session. It’s difficult to see how anyone could say he or she is in favor of preserving pensions for legislators or state employees who commit felonies.