ALBANY, N.Y. — As a lobbyist in New York’s State House, Stephen Acquario is doing pretty well. He pulls down $204,000 a year, more than the governor makes, gets a Ford Explorer as his company car and is afforded another special perk:
Even though he’s not a government employee, he is entitled to a full state pension.
He’s among hundreds of lobbyists in at least 20 states, including Maine, who get public pensions because they represent associations of counties, cities and school boards, an Associated Press review found. Legislatures granted them access decades ago on the premise that they serve governments and the public. In many cases, such access also includes state health care benefits.
But several states have started to question whether these organizations should qualify for such benefits, since they are private entities in most respects: They face no public oversight of their activities, can pay their top executives private-sector salaries and sometimes lobby for positions in conflict with taxpayers. New Jersey and Illinois are among the states considering legislation that would end their inclusion.
“It’s a question of, ‘Why are we providing government pensions to these private organizations?’” said Illinois Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz.
Acquario, executive director and general counsel of the New York State Association of Counties, argues that his group gives local government a voice in the State House, and the perk of a state pension makes it easier to hire people with government expertise.
“We want the people that work in local governments to continue to be part of the solution,” he said. “We represent the same taxpayers.”
The debate is more about principle than big money, since the staffs of such organizations are relatively small and make barely a ripple in huge state retirement systems. The eight New York associations, for example, have fewer than 120 total employees out of 633,100 current workers in the state’s $158.7 billion pension system.
Still, the issue raises a public policy question as many states and taxpayers struggle to fund their pension obligations required by law.
“There is liability for taxpayers,” said Keith Brainard, research director of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. “Providing a pension benefit involves some amount of risk for the state and when you provide access to employees of entities that are not in control of the state.”
Unlike state government, for example, these groups aren’t bound by salary restrictions – significant salary increases would result in increasing pension benefits.
“It’s clear that there’s a big problem with hypocrisy when these lobbyists have been pushing austerity and benefit cuts for other government workers while they themselves enjoy solid state pensions,” said Michael Kink of the progressive group Strong Economy for All Coalition. “’Do as I say, not as I do’ seems to be their approach on retirement cuts. Workers who have faced cuts in pay and pensioners have a right to be angry – as do voters,” Kink said.