How Topinka got such a sweet deal

$141,482 A YEAR | And it's based on a salary she never was paid

Friday, September 11, 2009

Former Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka has one of the biggest state pensions -- and it's based on a salary she never received.

That's because of another of the many peculiarities of a pension system Illinois legislators created that enriches themselves and statewide officials like Topinka, who carefully crafted an image as a fiscal conservative so cautious with a buck that she bought her clothes at thrift shops.

Topinka's current yearly pension is $141,482.

That's 23 percent more than what she was making when she retired from state government in January 2007./p>

Topinka's pension isn't based on her final salary of $115,235.

Instead, it's based on a salary of $130,324 -- the salary that had been set for the state treasurer's post at that time but which the Illinois Legislature didn't fund at that level until seven months after she retired, according to Timothy Blair, administrator of the General Assembly Retirement System.

Legislators' pensions are based on "the salary they are entitled to, whether they are receiving it or not,'' Blair said. "She was legally entitled to it, but the raise wasn't funded until after she retired.''

For serving 20 years in state government, Topinka was entitled to a pension based on 85 percent of her final salary.

But she held office -- as a state legislator and treasurer -- for just more than 26 years.

So, under the state's pension system covering elected officials, she got an additional 3 percent for each year beyond 20 years in office -- a total bump of 21 percent.

She has also gotten two automatic cost-of-living raises of 3 percent each -- and she'll keep getting those annual raises as long as she lives.

Topinka, 65, a Republican from Riverside, didn't return calls seeking comment.

Topinka is attempting a political comeback, running for state comptroller next year. If she wins, her state pension will be suspended.

She has the second-highest pension of any legislator. Ten percent of retired lawmakers have gotten more than $1 million each in retirement benefits.

In the two-plus years since she retired, Topinka has collected $340,076 from her state pension.

And she's still getting another government paycheck -- $25,000 a year for serving on the board of the RTA.