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After Brent Hill and his Senate preserve pension perk, Harris ends fight against it

After Brent Hill and his Senate preserve pension perk, Harris ends fight against it

Dustin Hurst
April 23, 2015
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April 23, 2015

One Idaho lawmaker said he likely won’t bring back a bill to end a legislative pension perk after his plan died a quiet death in the Idaho Senate this year.

Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, and at least one other critic laid blame on the Senate’s Republican leadership team.

“Why it died is obvious,” Harris told IdahoReporter.com Thursday.

The measure cleared the Idaho House after a leadership member in that body tried to kill it with a procedural maneuver. Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, sent the bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee, even though the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee pledged to give the measure a hearing.

Hill never explained why he routed the bill to the State Affairs Committee, a panel composed only of legislative leaders in both parties. He declined to answer IdahoReporter.com questions this week, saying he is outside the country on business.

Senate State Affairs Committee Chair Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, has not answered two emails from IdahoReporter.com asking why he didn’t hear the bill.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, told IdahoReporter.com last week he would forward information on the bill, but has yet to follow through on that promise.

Rod Beck, a former state senator and Republican Party activist, told IdahoReporter.com lawmakers’ concern about losing their ability to tap into fat pension paydays, courtesy of Idaho taxpayers, led to the bill’s death.

“There are people in the Idaho Senate who see that as a huge benefit,” Beck said of the ability to balloon pensions after long careers in the Capitol. “They don’t want to lose that.”

Interested lawmakers can add thousands of dollars a month to their pensions if they successfully score a high-paying state job. Legislators contribute to their pensions through their time in the Statehouse, but at a much smaller amount than if they were full-time workers.

Accordingly, legislators who leave service without a state job have small pensions, usually only hundreds of dollars a month.

Savvy lawmakers, though, can win appointments to state jobs in the administrative branch, stay for at least 42 months and add thousands to their monthly retirement payouts.

Take former Republican lawmaker Debbie Field. She spent a decade in the Statehouse and, after running Gov. Butch Otter’s campaign, won an appointment to head the governor’s drug policy office.

After staying for a total of 43 months, accounting for an extended leave of absence, Field retired, her pension successfully fattened. She denied spiking had anything to do with her decision.

Just this year, Otter appointed Democratic Sen. Elliott Werk of Boise to a spot on the Idaho State Tax Commission, a job that pays nearly $90,000 a year.

If he stays in the post for at least 42 months, his pension will come in at about $27,000 a year. Had Werk stayed in the Senate for 42 months and then retired, he would have only brought home $4,000 a year from taxpayers.

Harris told IdahoReporter.com he won’t bring back the plan in the 2016 Legislature. “It wouldn’t go that far next year,” Harris said. “House leadership will be more careful.”

“They relied on the Senate to kill it.”

House leadership worked feverishly to stop Harris’ bill. After a lengthy floor debate, the House approved the measure, with House Majority Caucus John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, voting for it.

After a lunch break, Vander Woude motioned to reconsider, a privilege enjoyed by legislators supporting successful bills. During the second round of debate, House heavyweights, including Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, debated against the bill.

Vander Woude went so far as to suggest he wants large-scale reform of Idaho’s pension system, a novelty argument for the Nampa Republican.

Several House critics suggested the measure was unconstitutional because it allowed lawmakers to set their own compensation, which is banned by the Idaho Constitution.

Harris scoffs at the argument. “We have four different attorney general’s opinions from different angles that thought it was appropriate,” Harris said. “Obviously, someone has to have the authority to change it.”

Harris said he will soon start working with the Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation, a six-member panel that rarely meets, to see if he can spur movement on pension-spiking there.

“That’s my angle,” Harris said.

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