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Mississippi sets rule on pensions and legislative service

(AP) — Mississippi government retirees can continue collecting pension benefits while also being paid to serve in the Legislature, under a rule finalized this week.

The board of the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System voted in February to draft the new rule. That was the first of several steps aimed at putting it into place by January, when the new four-year legislative term begins.

The board approved initial adoption of the rule in April and final adoption on Tuesday.

The retirement system’s executive director, Ray Higgins, said in a statement Wednesday that officials had to check with the IRS to make sure the system, commonly called by its acronym PERS, would maintain its tax-exempt status.

“Our hope was to receive an affirmative ruling from the IRS prior to the proposed January 1, 2020, effective date of the regulation revisions,” Higgins wrote. “PERS made a strong, good faith effort to make this possible. While we have yet to receive an official ruling from the IRS, PERS did receive word from the IRS via telephone that an affirmative ruling is expected.”

Based on that, the board went ahead with the vote Tuesday, he said. However, Higgins also said if the IRS does not give the expected approval, “we will likely have no choice but to revise the regulation, which may mean that the current and historical regulation will go back into effect.”

The Mississippi retirement system had a longstanding rule that said state elected officials could not receive salaries and pension benefits simultaneously. Attorney General Jim Hood issued a nonbinding legal opinion in November 2018 contradicting the rule.

The retirement system requested a clarification that Hood’s office issued Jan. 24.

Hood’s second opinion provided more guidance. For example, it said that members now in the Legislature could not start taking a pension without a 90-day break in service, unless they had recorded such a break in service between leaving a state job and getting elected to the Legislature, or unless there was some other exception.

Hood said lawmakers could collect their retirement benefits, plus half of a lawmaker’s salary, under a state rule that allows retirees to work up to half-time for half pay. Those people would also be able to receive all lawmaker expense pay classified as “earned compensation,” but not salary, without regard to the half-pay rule.

Nancy Loome is director of The Parents Campaign, a group that lobbies for public schools. In an email Wednesday, Loome praised the retirement board’s final adoption of the rule.

“It paves the way for retired state employees, including retired educators, to serve in the Legislature while drawing their hard-earned retirement,”Loome said. “That could be a game-changer for Mississippi public schools.”