Old pension rules benefit Gregoire

Staff writerMay 5, 2013 

Her last years in office, former Gov. Chris Gregoire worked long hours slashing budgets, pushing for taxes and running a nearly 60,000-employee operation.

Since mid-January, her calendar has included traveling, baby-sitting for her new granddaughter, Audrey Christine Lindsay, and getting her Lacey yard ready for a garden and pumpkin patch — all for just a couple thousand dollars a year less in pay.

Gregoire’s $159,608 pension, the most of any retiree from state general government, would not be nearly as high except for rules dating to a time when state law gave elected officials a plum deal on retirement. The special treatment was abolished in 1977, but Gregoire still benefits because her government career started earlier.

“I’m one who frankly believes that everybody should be treated the same. So I was surprised,” Gregoire said of learning about the special benefits around the time she became governor in 2005.

She had served three terms as attorney general by then and would go on to serve two in the Governor’s Mansion — in all, 20 years spent in positions chosen by the voters, following 20 years elsewhere in state service.

“To me it’s never been about (a) pension. If it was, I probably wouldn’t have run, out of concern that I would have lost,” she said. “To me, it’s always been about service and not about money.”

Once most of her fellow members of the old pension plan known as Plan 1 of the Public Employees’ Retirement System work 30 years, further longevity no longer boosts their benefits. That cap doesn’t apply to time in elected office, so Gregoire’s 40 years of public service are all counted toward her benefit.

Another difference: Most PERS 1 members receive a payout of 2 percent of their final pay for every year they worked. The formula for elected officials uses 3 percent of pay for every year they are in political office.

“It’s one of the reasons why they closed the plan back in ’77,” said Dave Nelsen, legal and legislative services manager at the Department of Retirement Systems.

Lawmakers closed PERS 1 but would have been on shaky legal ground if they had tried to change benefits for employees already in the plan.

Elected officials in the plan did have more taken out of their paychecks over their careers — 7.5 percent of pay to other workers’ 6 percent. But that 25 percent increase in what employees paid into the system was dwarfed by a 50 percent increase in what the state paid.

FEW PENSIONS AS BIG

Gregoire could have had an even larger pension — more than $169,000, well over what she made as governor. She chose to reduce it by about 6 percent to allow her husband, Mike, to collect half of the benefit if he outlives her.

Mike Gregoire worked 30 years for state government as a health care investigator, retiring in 2003 shortly before the couple moved into the mansion. Both Gregoires have recovered from cancer treatment.

Six-figure pensions are rare in Washington’s state and local government. Of nearly 140,000 retirees, 209 have a payout above $100,000, Nelsen said — just 0.15 percent.

Just 11 of them have benefits higher than Gregoire’s, none from state agencies. Aside from a University of Washington retiree who makes $209,028, the others are retired from Pierce and King county fire districts, the city of Seattle and the Energy Northwest consortium of utilities that operates the nuclear power plant near Richland.

Some elected officials serve a long time, but few combine that with a long state-government career. Gregoire’s improbable rise started with jobs as a clerk-typist and case worker.

And few make as much: $166,891 if she had accepted full pay.

Gregoire voluntarily cut her salary to match the 3 percent cuts taken by state employees — a move that doesn’t affect her pension benefit. For three years before the voluntary furlough started in 2011, she donated to charity the amount of a raise she received in 2008.

NO JOB, YET

Now she is enjoying the things she couldn’t as governor, like joining her husband and daughters for the first time at the Whistler, B.C., timeshare where they had stayed yearly without her. Every Friday, she and First Mike — now just Mike — take care of their new granddaughter. Thursday and Friday nights are often spent with their daughters.

Some thought she would be in Washington, D.C., by now, selected for an opening in the Obama administration. Gregoire said she told President Barack Obama she would be open to something in the future but not now — although she wouldn’t say if he actually offered her a job.

Gregoire is serving in an unpaid role on the advisory board to the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and last month she was exploring joining the board of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has been asked to serve on other boards, she said.

She’s interested in teaching, too.

She wants to keep serving the public in some way rather than take a job for its pay, she said — no private law firms.

She recalled people asking her if she received a bonus for the $206 billion settlement she helped win for states from the cigarette industry as attorney general.

“They said, ‘What did you get extra? Because private lawyers got millions of dollars,’ and I said, ‘I got the satisfaction of knowing I did really, really good,’” Gregoire said.

“I feel I’m the wealthiest person in the world for having served.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 blog.thenewstribune.com/politics jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com @Jordan_Schrader

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