A legislative committee on Monday advanced a bill that would expand the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System’s board of trustees from nine to 13 members by requiring the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to each appoint two retired system members.
In other action, the Joint Committee on Public Retirement and Social Security Programs declined to approve legislation that would require retirement system members who pleaded guilty to or are convicted of committing a public trust crime as an elected official to forfeit their retirement benefits.
The committee’s actions came on the 85th day of the 93rd General Assembly’s regular session.
The Public Employees Retirement System is state government’s second largest such system with roughly $11 billion in investments and more than 75,000 working and retired members.
The Legislature’s retirement committee on Monday recommended House and Senate approval of House Bill 1298 by Rep. Les Warren, R-Hot Springs, which would require the president pro tempore and speaker to each appoint two retirees to the board.
One of the two appointees for each legislative leader would have to be a retired law enforcement officer who is not a member of the Arkansas State Police Retirement System.
Warren told the committee, “That [bill] gets us where we have held up our end of the bargain, where we went across the state with meetings [in the fall of 2019] and we kept hearing, ‘We just want an avenue for representation,'” from retired system members.
Under current state law, the governor appoints three state employees and three nonstate employees to the system’s board, which also includes the state auditor, state treasurer and secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration. The governor appoints the secretary of the finance department.
Act 311 of 2017 limited the system’s board of trustees to two retired members, one representing state employees and the other representing local government employees. The law subsequently led Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson to replace three retired state employees on the board with a former state senator, who is a retired state employee, and two state agency directors.
Under HB1298, no more than one of the three nonstate employee trustees appointed by the governor and no more than one of the three state employee trustees appointed by the governor would have to be a retired system member. The three nonstate employee trustees also would include at least one currently elected county judge and at least one mayor under the bill.
Warren earlier had another proposal to change the board. House Bill 1283 cleared the House, but not the Senate. Under that bill, three groups would appoint retirees to the board and the president pro tempore and speaker would appoint a retired law officer. Some senators objected to the groups appointing board members.
In a voice vote, the committee declined to recommend House and Senate approval of Senate Bill 231 by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, that would would set rules for the forfeiture of retirement benefits when an elected official is convicted of or pleads guilty to committing a public trust crime while performing his duties as an elected official.
A public trust crime would be defined under the bill to be a crime prohibited under Article 5, Section 9 of Arkansas Constitution.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said that if the spouse of an elected official did nothing wrong and the public retirement benefit was split between the elected official and the spouse and they have children “both the person and the spouse will lose the benefit, which means that the children will lose the benefit, too.”
Johnson said many laws that the Legislature enacts include punishment to deter criminal activity and “the deterrence at least partially in this case is that this will not just hurt you, it would hurt your spouse.”
Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, said that under his reading of the bill, if Chesterfield, for example, were convicted of a public trust crime, “she would lose her teacher retirement as well.”
Johnson said he disagreed with Sample’s interpretation of the bill.
He told lawmakers that “I still hear from a lot of people that are outraged that we pay pensions to legislative crooks.
“That is something that I can’t look my people in the eye without saying that I tried to fix [that] and that’s why I have this bill now,” Johnson said.
He said, “When I first ran for the Senate this was my primary motivation at this stage of my life to run when I see people walking the halls of the Capitol that they have a public trust and they violated that trust by taking bribes or similar type crimes, then we have to punish that.
“And I recognize any time you punish anyone in our society other people get hurt,” Johnson said. “I think society gets hurt. Certainly, the reputation of the Legislature has been hurt tremendously. There are folks out there that think we all are a bunch of crooks up here, so I think we need to show that we are willing to at least take away the long-term benefit of doing something corrupt.”
Since 2017, several former state lawmakers have pleaded guilty to or been convicted of federal crimes.