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Originally published Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:14 PM

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Gregoire’s pension check nearly $160,000 a year

An exemption made for elected officials in an old pension plan has helped former Gov. Chris Gregoire — at $159,608 a year — become the highest-paid pensioner from state government.

The Associated Press

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OLYMPIA — Former Gov. Chris Gregoire receives a pension of $159,608, the most of any retiree from state government, The Olympian reported in Sunday’s newspaper.

She benefits from an old rule that gave elected officials a special deal on retirement, but she was eligible because she began working in state government a long time ago.

Gregoire served two terms as governor and three terms as attorney general, plus 20 years working in state government before being elected.

“I’m one who frankly believes that everybody should be treated the same. So I was surprised,” Gregoire said of learning about the special benefits around the time she became governor in 2005.

Lawmakers closed the special plan for longtime retirees in 1977, but lawmakers thought it would have been legally questionable to change benefits for employees, such as Gregoire, already in the plan.

“To me it’s never been about (a) pension. ... To me, it’s always been about service and not about money,” she said.

In the old pension plan, known as Plan 1 of the Public Employees’ Retirement System, 30 years of service was the upper limit for boosting benefits. But that cap doesn’t apply to time in elected office. So Gregoire’s 40 years of public service are all counted toward her benefit.

Another difference: Most members of the group receive a payout of 2 percent of their final pay for every year they worked. The formula for elected officials uses 3 percent of pay for every year they are in political office.

“It’s one of the reasons why they closed the plan back in ’77,” said Dave Nelsen, legal and legislative-services manager at the Department of Retirement Systems.

Elected officials did have more taken out of their paychecks over their careers — 7.5 percent of pay to other workers’ 6 percent. But that 25 percent increase in what employees paid into the system was dwarfed by a 50 percent increase in what the state paid.

Six-figure pensions are rare in Washington’s state and local governments. Of nearly 140,000 retirees, 209 have a payout above $100,000, Nelsen said.

Just 11 of them — none from state agencies — have benefits higher than Gregoire’s.

Aside from a University of Washington retiree who makes $209,028, the others are retired from Pierce and King county fire districts, the city of Seattle and the Energy Northwest consortium of utilities that operates the nuclear-power plant near Richland.

Some elected officials serve a long time, but few combine that with a long state-government career. Gregoire’s career started with jobs as a clerk-typist and caseworker.

And few make as much: $166,891 if she had accepted full pay.

Gregoire voluntarily cut her salary to match the 3 percent cuts taken by state employees — a move that doesn’t affect her pension benefit. For three years before the voluntary furlough started in 2011, she donated to charity the amount of a raise she received in 2008.

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