Gregoire benefits from old state pension rules

OLYMPIA — Former Gov. Chris Gregoire is benefiting from old state pension rules that ended in 1977.

Gregoire receives a pension of $159,608, the most of any retiree from state government, The Olympian reported in Sunday’s newspaper. She benefits from an old rule that gave elected officials a special deal on retirement. She was eligible because she began working in state government a long time ago.

Gregoire served two terms as governor and three terms as attorney general, plus another 20 years working in state government before being elected.

“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.

Lawmakers closed the special plan for long-time retirees in 1977, but lawmakers felt it would have been legally questionable to change benefits for employees already in the plan, like Gregoire.

“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 members of the group 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.

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.

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 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 career with the state 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.

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.

Some thought she would be in Washington, D.C., by now. Gregoire said she told President Barack Obama she would be open to something in the future but not now.

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.

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