CHARLESTON, W.Va. - In a year without new raises for state workers, some state judges could take home several thousand dollars more.
A bill pending in the Senate could reduce the pension payments sitting judges make into the Judges' Retirement System, the state retirement plan designed for circuit court judges and Supreme Court justices. The bill was requested by the Supreme Court, which oversees the court system.
Currently, 47 of the state's sitting circuit court judges and two of the five sitting justices pay 10.5 percent of their salaries into the plan. The bill would reduce that figure to as little as 7 percent, because the pension plan is currently over-funded.
Court administrative director Steve Canterbury said the pension system was under-funded in 2005 and so the Legislature raised the pension contribution from 7 percent to 9 percent to 10.5 percent.
Now, the fund is overflowing. It's 130 percent funded, though accountants recommend a funding level of 85 to 100 percent.
"They did their part, and now it's time to get them back to some normalcy of their contribution," Canterbury said.
Although the judicial pension is generous for retirees, the contribution for sitting judges is high compared to the 4.5 percent other state public employees pay into their pension plans. Teachers pay 6 percent.
"They paid; there was never a peep about anybody wanting to change the percentage," Canterbury said.
Now, the court wants to return to the previous level of 7 percent, so long as the fund stays fully funded.
But members of the state Senate, where the bill is being considered, are trying to figure out why the judicial retirement system is over-funded.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said some senators are concerned the Supreme Court itself, using state tax revenue, paid too much in employer contributions into the plan and now the judges are getting a break.
Palumbo said their question is, "Is it over-funded because the judges are paying too much or is it over-funded because the Supreme Court has been overpaying?"
"I think that's what the Senate Finance Committee is wrestling with," he said.
With the proposed changes, the system is expected to become 127 percent funded in the next budget year, Canterbury said. The Supreme Court plans to reduce its employer contribution this year by $318,000 to $2.4 million.
"Our contribution will reflect a gradual trimming down," he said.
If the bill passes, it would amount to a pay raise for 49 state judges, even though the state is not spending any more on salaries.