When he ran last year for public office, current House Dist. 28 state Rep. Jerry Darnell (R-Hernando) thought one issue about him running had been settled.
As a former DeSoto County Schools administrator, Darnell receives a pension from the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS. However, Darnell thought a question about getting retirement from the Legislature along with his PERS check had been settled with a PERS ruling earlier last year.
in that decision, the PERS board removed a regulation that had prevented state and local government retirees and retired public school educators from drawing their monthly pension while serving in the Legislature. The board finalized the decision in late December and it awaits a written acknowledgement from the Internal Revenue Service.
However, Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn (R-Clinton) has said the action of the PERS Board on the issue goes against state law. In effect, Gunn said that four lawmakers would be drawing two retirement checks, from their school or government role and from the Legislature.
“It is not right for taxpayers to have to fund both,” Gunn told Mississippi Today.
Joining the Hernando Republican in the middle of the issue are Dale Goodin, Billy Andrews, and Ramona Blackledge.
Andrews, elected last year, was in the House in the 1970s and 1980s, then became a county judge and youth court judge. Goodin, like Darnell, is a retired school educator. Blackledge comes to the House as a retired tax assessor-collector in Jones County. All four are Republicans.
Darnell said he entered the campaign believing the retirement issue had been settled.
“That was the reason that got me interested in running at the time,” Darnell said. “During the year, PERS had worked very hard on getting that straight for us to draw our retirement and serve. In December they made a final decision, although they’re still waiting on an IRS decision in writing. We got a verbal decision from them stating to go ahead.”
Under the PERS regulation, lawmakers could draw their retirement benefit if they only draw a portion of their legislative pay - 50 percent or 25 percent of the average of their high four years as government or public school workers. The regulation follows existing state law for re-employment by public employees in other government jobs.
For his part, Darnell said it won’t take away a focus of working as a legislator.
“Right now I am going to continue to serve and represent the people of District 28,” Darnell said. “That’s my plan.”
Darnell and other affected legislators believe it may come to drafting legislation to settle it once and for all.
“I am just astonished we are not being supported by the leadership,” Blackledge told Mississippi Today. “I just feel this is an injustice and unfair to the people of District 88 and circumventing their vote.”
Andrews stated it could come down to a lawsuit being filed over the issue if Gunn does not allow them to receive reduced pay and continue to represent their constituents.
Andrews also inserted politics into the issue because of his understanding that Gunn was opposing it because former Attorney General and candidate for governor Jim Hood, a Democrat, put the issue in motion in an attempt to get Democrats elected.
A 2018 Hood opinion said that PERS was violating the law by preventing their retirees from serving in the Legislature and drawing their pensions. Since the law doesn’t specifically mention legislators, PERS believed they were not covered by the law.
Andrews told Mississippi Today it was his belief that Gunn was trying to block them because Democrat Hood issued the opinion, even though the four affected lawmakers are all Republicans.
Information from Mississippi Today Senior Capitol Reporter Bobby Harrison contributed to this item.