Why double dip? Lawmakers point to their wives

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The ranks of New York lawmakers collecting both a salary and pension could grow by as many as nine next year, with another batch of legislators filing paperwork with the state Comptroller’s Office this year to allow them to do so beginning in 2015.

Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, Orange County; Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson, Madison County; Sen. Kenneth LaValle, R-Suffolk County; and Sen. Tom Libous, R-Binghamton, all said their decision to file for retirement benefits was done as a way to protect their significant others or families should they pass away. It’s the same reason that was given by Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, Schenectady County, when he filed in 2012.

“One of my major concerns is my wife of 50 years, that’s been with me all through my political life,” Magee said. “As it is right now, the system the way it is, if something should happen to me, all she would get is a lump sum settlement. She’s the beneficiary, so I want to do everything I can to make sure she has proper health care and so on.”.

Here’s how it works: State law allows lawmakers who were in office before 1995 to file for retirement at the end of their term, even if they are returning to the Legislature in January. After that, those who are 65 or older can collect their full pension benefits while also collecting their regular salary.

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If a member of the state’s retirement system dies before they begin collecting their benefits, the beneficiary is paid a lump sum of up to three times the member’s annual salary. But if they die after collecting the benefits, monthly payments can be transferred to the beneficiary.

Libous’ situation is a bit different. He’s only 61, so he would be limited to collecting no more than $30,000 of his retirement pay. But Libous, who is battling cancer and facing a federal felony charge, says he will collect “a couple” payments next year before freezing his retirement pay, which would allow him to transfer some payments to his wife should he die before actually retiring.

As of earlier this year, there were 15 sitting state lawmakers who were collecting state retirement benefits and a salary. Two are retiring at year’s end. If all nine who filed for next year follow through, that would put the total at 22 in 2015.

The newly filed lawmakers can still withdraw their paperwork before Jan. 1. Magee said he will decide in the coming days whether to do so.

The act of double dipping has long been criticized by fiscal watchdogs, who have questioned why elected officials should be able to earn retirement payments without actually retiring.

“If legislators were in a 401(k)-type system, like vast majority of their constituents, this simply wouldn’t be an issue,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank. “The existing system shouldn’t simply be mended, it should be ended.”.

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In a statement, Bonacic said he “put this decision off” for as long as he could, but said it was “appropriate at this time to protect my wife.”.

“I am blessed with a wife who manages our family affairs intelligently and am grateful for her partnership in our more than 45 years of marriage,” Bonacic said. “If I were to die while in active service in the state legislature, the law does not allow my wife to collect my pension.”.

(File photo by Joe Larese, The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News).