Lawmaker eyeing changes in retirement system

JACKSON — Mississippi’s Public Employees Retirement System is sound, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer says he wants to keep it that way.

Stringer, D-Montrose, said Tuesday that he’s crafting legislation to change how the state handles employees who retire and then return to work in state government as part-time or contract workers.

Currently, Stringer said neither those employees nor the agencies they work for contribute to the Public Employees Retirement System. Even though the contract and part-time workers cannot accrue more time toward retirement, Stringer wants the agencies to make a contribution to the PERS fund.

The reason: “They retire one day and come back the next as a contract worker. All these people are getting a free ride and it’s got to stop,” Stringer said.

PERS executive director Pat Robertson briefed Stringer’s committee on Tuesday. Robertson said the retirement fund is sound, although its investments have been affected by stock market losses.

She said PERS has $18 billion in assets and pays out about $500 million each year in retirement benefits. She said Mississippi currently has over 20,000 employees who are eligible for immediate retirement.

Stringer didn’t have an exact figure on how many retirees are among the group his proposed legislation would target.

“It’s a great number,” he said, adding that the contract and part-time workers are holding jobs that could be filled with regular state employees who would automatically pay into the system.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said legislation passed last year required state agencies who employ retirees as contract workers to report that information to his and Stringer’s committees if the workers are paid $20,000 a year or more.

“That’s going to be an effective tool,” Nunnelee said.

Robertson said agency heads often contract with retirees with institutional knowledge to avoid hiring or promoting someone without the experience.

Rep. Herb Frierson, R-Poplarville, took issue with the explanation and compared the situation to church leadership.

“When elders and deacons die, do you see the church closing its doors?” Frierson said.

Mississippi PERS covers all nonfederal public employees in the state. That includes people who work for state, county and city governments; universities; fire departments and law enforcement agencies.

Shela Byrd/The Associated Press