FRANKFORT, Ky. — J.R. Gray spent 26 years in the Kentucky legislature, a part-time job where he earned between $30,000 and $40,000 a year and he rose to become chairman of the House Labor and Industry Committee.
But when the Democrat from Benton retired in 2010, Gray began receiving a retirement check each month for more than $9,800 — or more than $117,000 a year. That’s because his pension is mostly based on the three years he was Labor Cabinet secretary under former Gov. Steve Beshear. A state law passed in 2005 — which Gray voted for — allowed lawmakers to apply their salaries from other government jobs to their legislative pensions, thus boosting their benefits.
Gray is one of at least six current and former Kentucky lawmakers who are owed more than $100,000 in annual pension benefits, according to information released Friday by three of the state’s retirement systems at the request of The Associated Press and other news organizations. It is the first time the public can see how much their elected, part-time lawmakers have accumulated in pension benefits across all of state government, thanks to a new state law that took effect this week.
Gray said he has no qualms about his hefty pension. He said state lawmakers are underpaid, arguing “if they do the work for the people that needs to be done, it’s more than a part-time position.”
“Believe you me, when you work in a positon like that, you earn it every penny of it,” he said.
Kentucky was one of a few states that did not publicly disclose the pension benefits for state lawmakers. Republicans in the state Senate had tried for years to change that, only to be blocked by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. But this year, Republicans have super majorities in both chambers, and the pension legislation sailed through the General Assembly in just five days last week and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed it.
“The public deserves to know what they pay us — the full package of what they pay us, not just what is your daily rate,” said Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel, the bill’s chief sponsor. “We are required to vote on pension related legislation, and we should have to disclose what impact those votes will or won’t have on us personally.”
McDaniel opted not to participate in the legislative retirement system, which by law put him in the same retirement system as all state employees. Records from that system were released late Friday.
McDaniel has publicly shared his benefits in the past on his Facebook page.
The information released Friday includes benefits from the retirement systems covering the legislature, judiciary and public school teachers for 300 current or former lawmakers. The information includes benefits for retired members along with estimated benefits for current members.
Some of the top earners benefited from having long careers in the legislature bookended by other high-paying state jobs. Former Republican state Sen. Dan Kelly was appointed to a state judgeship by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. He now earns more than $104,000 a year in retirement benefits. Former Republican state Rep. Jon Draud spent nine years in the legislature, but 40 years with various public education jobs.
He worked one year as education commissioner before resigning for health reasons. He said that one year of work at a salary of $225,000 likely added more than $60,000 to his retirement benefits, which now exceed $158,000 per year.
“I don’t have anything to apologize for that,” Draud said. “I worked 40 years in education and it just happens to be that I rose to the top position as commissioner of education.”
Former state Rep. Harry Moblery Jr., the long-time House budget chairman, was the top pension earner at more than $165,000 per year. That’s because he spent 22 years as a high-level administrator at Eastern Kentucky University, where his salary reached as high as $170,000 per year.
“It’s not that I pulled any particular tricks or did anything in anticipation of a higher pension, I just rose to a higher level and had a much higher salary than most other legislators,” Moberly said. “My pension is very much about my experience.”
This story has corrected that the information includes benefits from the retirement systems for more than 300 current or former lawmakers, not more 350.