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For ex-lawmakers, retirement pays nicely

It pays to be a legislative leader --- even when you're gone. Or out of prison.

Former leaders head the list of those receiving pensions under North Carolina's Legislative Retirement System.

At the top of the list: former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black of Matthews, who served time in prison for corruption. He gets $3,607 a month, according to the state Treasurer's office.

His predecessor, Republican Harold Brubaker of Asheboro, gets $3,444 a month to supplement his income as a lobbyist representing more than a dozen clients including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and GlaxoSmithKline.

Apodaca and Hise named pension chairs

Senators Tom Apodaca of Henderson and Ralph Hise of Mitchell have been named co-chairs of the Senate Committee on Pensions & Retirement and Aging.

In naming the two, Senate leader Phil Berger said their assignment was “to ensure North Carolina's pension system protects taxpayers from enormous unfunded liabilities and remains sustainable for current and future retirees.''

Apodaca and Sen. Wesley Meredith co-chaired the committee during the past session.

Morning Roundup: Pension perks benefit retiring state lawmakers

--A cadre of veteran state lawmakers will retire at the end of the year - and special perks in state law allow them to land with a financial parachute. Take former House Speaker Joe Hackney: the 66-year-old attorney with 32 years in the legislature can expect to receive a $41,000 annual pension for the rest of his life.

A North Carolina law that allows the state's part-time lawmakers to add an expense stipend to their base salary when calculating retirement benefits boosts their pensions by more than 30 percent, according to a News & Observer analysis. The percentage of salary lawmakers receive as an annual payout also is more than double the rate afforded most state workers. Read more and see the $10K Club here.

--A group that plans to mount a novel third-party presidential campaign is poised to get on the North Carolina ballot, a move that could change the electoral dynamics in a key battleground state. A state elections official says Americans Elect appears to have the required signatures to get on the November ballot alongside President Barack Obama and the Republican and Libertarian nominees. The state could certify them in early March. Read more here.

Berger speaks

The legislature must respond to the biggest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression and draw new legislative and congressional maps.

And presumptive Senate leader Phil Berger wants the Senate to finish its work in record time.

"My goal is to finish the session by the end of June," he said at a meeting with reporters today.

When the legislature faced the same issues 10 years ago (and then the budget problem wasn't as bad) the session lasted nearly all year, from January 24 to December 6.

Unlike past sessions that took weeks to get going, the Senate will have committees ready to debate bills by next week, Berger said.

Early bills will deal with Gov. Bev Perdue's ability to direct state agencies to save money. Berger said it would help if Perdue is able to save more in the existing  budget so legislative budget writers will have a cushion to work with as they figure things out for next year.

A charter school bill that eliminates the 100-school cap will be debated in the first weeks. The bill may include recommendations to have agency other than the State Board of Education oversee charters, he said.

"There's the perception that DPI (the state Department of Public Instruction) has not been particularly receptive to the idea of charters," Berger said.

The House will have bills ready on voter ID and on exempting state residents from some provisions of the federal health care law, he said.

The state pension plan could be in for changes. Berger said he'd like to see if there's a way to move to a defined contribution plan from a defined benefits plan.

Bills on social issues such as limiting abortion and constitutionally banning gay marriage will wait until the budget is done, Berger said.

"We do not intend to focus on those issues until we have addressed the fiscal issues," he said.

Soles bill would help longtime ally

As North Carolina struggles to close an $800 million deficit, Sen. R.C. Soles has filed a bill to sweeten pensions for judges and district attorneys.

The bill would benefit Soles' longtime friend and ally, District Attorney Rex Gore, who lost to an opponent in the Democratic primary earlier this month, Joseph Neff reports on the Investigations blog.

Under current law, judges and district attorneys can begin collecting their pensions when they turn 65, or when they complete 24 years of service.

Soles' bill would allow judges or district attorneys to begin collecting their pensions at age 62 if they have 20 or more years of service. That means Gore could collect his pension immediately upon leaving office in January 2011, rather than waiting until he turns 65 in April of 2013.

Gore, who has about 22 years of service, said he discovered the loophole after his loss in the primary.

"I absolutely talked with (Soles) about this," Gore said in a telephone interview. "After I lost, I got to looking at the retirement pay and discovered this loophole.... When I did my own calculation I saw that I would lose 5 percent."

Coble's pension pledge gets notice

U.S. Rep. Howard Coble has just about given up on trying to abolish congressional pensions.

But Coble, 78, a Greensboro Republican and longest-serving member of the state's congressional delegation, says he'd like to see others follow his pledge to refuse his pension.

The CBS Evening News featured Coble on a segment about former members of Congress who were convicted of crimes and are still eligible to receive their pensions, some amounting to six-figures a year.

Coble and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, are the only members of Congress who say they won't accept their pensions. Coble said his salary is plenty.

"I figured taxpayers pay my salary — not a bad salary," he said. "And I figure that's sufficient. Let me fend for myself after the salary's collected." 

State pension down $4b so far

North Carolina's pension lost about $4.1 billion in the first three months of 2009.

State Treasurer Janet Cowell said Tuesday that the negative 6.4 percent return, which left the pension fund valued at $55.9 billion, was about average.

About 41 percent of the funds are invested in stocks, another 47 percent in bonds, six percent in real estate and the remainder in other investments.

Cowell asked lawmakers to put $358 million into the system over the next two years to make up the losses, but a projected $3 billion budget deficit makes that unlikely. (WRAL)

The Senate Finance Committee, meantime, gave is approval to a bill that would expand the types of investments Cowell can make for the fund, allowing 10 percent more to go into nontraditional investments.

Cowell said that would reduce risk. (Insider)

Cowell: Pension fund down 19 percent

Janet CowellState Treasurer Janet Cowell said this morning that the state's pension fund is down $16 billion from a year ago.

The fund, which pays retirement benefits for tens of thousands of state and local government employees, is valued at $60 billion, Ben Niolet reports.

A year ago, the fund was worth $77 billion. The drop represents a 19.7 percent decline in fund performance, a measure created by the fund's actuary.

Cowell said the fund is down because of the dramatic downturn in global markets. The state's treasurers have traditionally been conservative in how they invest the money, which is why the state's pension fund is faring better than other similar funds, she said.

As the markets have turned worse, the Treasurer's office has turned even more conservative, increasing its allocation in less risky, long-term investments.

"North Carolina is in better shape than almost any state," she said.

Former Treasurer Richard Moore like to tout the fact that the fund had more than enough money to pay its beneficiaries. That's still true, but the number is sliding, Cowell said. The plan is funded at 104.7 percent. Next year that number will slide to about 100 percent.

Cowell said all retirees will get their benefits.

"You're entitled to your money," Cowell said.

The loss in value likely means that the legislature will have to increase its contribution to employees retirement benefits by about $29 million for the next year. That means the tab for the legislature will be somewhere around $430 million. The legislature's burden will likely increase in 2010.

Employees contribute 6 percent of their checks to the fund. Erica Baldwin, a spokeswoman for the State Employees Association, which represents some 55,000 employees or retirees, said the organization has repeatedly urged the legislature to up their contribution to state employees retirement.

"That's been the weakest leg of the stool," Baldwin said.

Update: Post now includes more details.

Correction: Post now includes correct value of the fund a year ago. It also includes a better description of the change in performance.

Moore: Pension fund down, but solid

Richard Moore says the state's pension fund is solid.

In an interview with the N&O, the outgoing state treasurer said the state's portfolio dropped from $72.3 billion in value at the end of June to $65.9 billion as of Sept. 30.

The portfolio secures pension funds for nearly 900,000 people in the state and local government retirement system, Rob Christensen reports.

"State pensioners should not be concerned about their checks," Moore said. "We will finish this year in an overfunded status. We will be one of the top-performing pension plans in the country this year. But we have lost money. We have lost a lot."

Because the state has long had a conservative investment policy — about half the assets are in fixed-income investments such as bonds — the state's losses were far less dramatic than in many investment funds.

The state pension fund was down 12 percent for the year ending Sept. 30, compared with the S&P 500, which was down 24 percent, Moore said.

North Carolina is one of three states — the others are New York and Connecticut — where an elected state official has sole responsibility for investment of the state's pension fund.

Dole, Hayes eligible for pension

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Rep. Robin Hayes could get federal pensions.

As the two multimillionaires leave Congress next month, they will be eligible immediately for congressional pensions: Dole, about $15,000 a year for life; Hayes, about $25,500, according to the National Taxpayers Union, a government watchdog group.

The amounts would be increased with an annual cost of living adjustment, Lisa Zagaroli reports.

"Even after attempts to reform the system in the early 1980s, members of Congress were left with a very sweet deal," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the group. "They get both defined benefit pensions and a defined contribution plan. Most workers in America have to choose one or the other if they're even offered both."

Rep. Howard Coble of Greensboro campaigned against the system in his first race in 1984 and has never enrolled in it. He said he knows of only one other lawmaker who isn't enrolled, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

"It's a taxpayer ripoff," he said.

Hayes is worth between $75 and $272 million, making him the fifth richest member of Congress, while Dole is worth between $15 and $48 million, making her the 23rd richest lawmaker, according to a 2007 ranking by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Both declined to comment on the pension.

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