A bill that will soon be on its way to the governor promises a small but important change to the way the state’s pension system operates. Rep. Steve Harris, R-Meridian, sponsored the legislation, which passed the House unanimously Feb. 22 and cleared a Senate editing process with one inconsequential change and very little fanfare. This bill offers a lot to love, especially if you’re a taxpayer and you have a problem with special interest groups making use of government resources.
In recent years, a number of special interest groups have become members of the state pension program. Harris’ House Bill 145 would stop additional non-governmental entities from becoming a part of the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI). PERSI, of course, is supposed to be a retirement program for state and local government employees, including teachers, firefighters, social workers and highway engineers.
But, under current state law, PERSI members don’t always have to be a state or local government entity. That’s why, among the ranks of the government workers on PERSI there are also employees who belong to a bevy of special interest organizations. These include labor union employees from the Idaho Education Association, and lobbyists for the Association of Idaho Cities and the Idaho Association of Counties, among others.
One problem with this: Such organizations routinely lobby the Legislature, and the Legislature also holds the key to the policies that determine the costs and retirement benefits associated with PERSI. Additionally, by law, the state pension system is the responsibility of Idaho’s taxpayers. Should the system become insolvent, it’s up to the taxpayers to set it straight. That means Idaho taxpayers are ultimately on the hook for the retirement programs of government employees as well as the retirements of special interest and lobbying organizations.
It wouldn’t kick existing non-governmental organizations and their employees off of PERSI; they can stay. What HB 145 would do is prevent new non-governmental organizations from joining.
This limit to entry has an added benefit: Organizations often petition to join PERSI, and deciding factors for admittance include whether the organization is funded by government employee contributions or if the groups “discharge governmental responsibilities or proprietary responsibilities that would otherwise be performed by government.” What does that mean? Nobody knows exactly, which leaves PERSI officials to solve the riddle, with mixed results. HB 145 means PERSI officials would no longer need to guess.
Harris’ bill doesn’t address a lot of other issues involving PERSI, including the increasing costs associated with maintaining the system (both taxpayers and employees are having to pay more into the system to keep it funded properly). Nor does the reform address the problem of state legislators being able to parlay their legislative tenure into big bucks when they give up their part-time elective office for a high-paying state job.
In the end, Harris’ HB 145 will keep new lobby groups, special interests or other non-governmental organizations and their employees from joining the state pension program. That’s a solid victory for taxpayers and a good move for the state of Idaho.