Another exclusive pension perk gone, one to go

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A great outcome of the 2019 legislative session was the demise of a pension perk that exclusively benefited state legislators. That perk allowed our part-time senators and representatives to accept full-time positions in the bureaucracy, which made them eligible for a significant spike in their monthly retirement benefits. What once would have been a few-hundred-dollars-a-month retirement benefit could easily climb to several thousand dollars a month.

For many years, conservative lawmakers have attempted to end the perk, but those measures repeatedly suffered quiet deaths in the drawers of powerful state lawmakers. Last fall, the citizens committee that sets legislative compensation voted to end the practice of awarding the politician pension payoff, as many came to call the shady arrangement. That action gave space to the Legislature to eliminate the perk as a legal nullity because the state constitution forbids the Legislature from setting its own compensation and benefits by statute — though that hasn’t stopped ‘em in the past. In January 2019, Meridian Rep. Steven Harris introduced the measure to do away with the pension perk. The bill passed unanimously in both legislative chambers. Gov. Brad Little signed the repeal into law last month.

Idaho lawmakers interested in government integrity aren’t done hunting down and eliminating unfair pension schemes. Another pension reform bill was introduced in the 2019 legislative session, but that measure got nowhere. That bill would have stopped Idaho from being among a minority of states that allow special interest lobbyists to receive taxpayer-backed state pensions. Fortunately, back In 2017, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill to prevent new non-governmental organizations from joining the state pension system, in part because of questions about the propriety of such an arrangement and partly because there was no standard for which groups got in and which didn’t.

But that bill didn’t stop the plethora of special interest groups and their employees, already in the state pension system, from remaining in it. The list of grandfathered organizations includes the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, the Association of Idaho Cities, and the Idaho Association of Counties. So, though new organizations are barred from joining the state retirement system, special interest lobbyists who work for the aforementioned private organizations get to stay on it, and their retirements have the full backing of Idaho taxpayers.

Rep. Steven Harris, R-Boise, introduced a bill this year that said already-hired employees would get to remain on the state pension system, but that new employees of special interest lobby groups would have to find another retirement program. His argument, as well as mine: It is wrong for state taxpayers to ultimately be responsible for guaranteeing the retirement benefits of employees of organizations that lobby the Legislature. Harris’ bill sought to fix the problem without pulling the rug out from under employees who were already promised membership in the state retirement program.

Idaho lawmakers have made a lot of progress in making sure the taxpayer-funded state pension program isn’t a portal through which the politically-connected reap big rewards. That said, there are a few more steps to take. In 2020, the Legislature should continue the effort.