Idaho Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill told IdahoReporter.com Wednesday rumors of an appointment for a committee chairman forced him to reroute a bill to address pension-spiking by lawmakers.
Using his privilege as the Senate leader, Hill sent House Bill 100, a measure to limit lawmakers’ ability to spike their public pensions, to the Senate State Affairs Committee instead of the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee.
The bill died in the State Affairs Committee after Chair Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, refused to hear it.
Senate Commerce and Human Resources Chair John Tippets, R-Bennington, told IdahoReporter.com earlier this year he probably supported the measure and would have likely given it a hearing.
It wasn’t to be as Hill, a Republican from Rexburg, rerouted the measure.
The Senate pro tem explained the action Wednesday, nearly a month after IdahoReporter.com first posed the question.
“Now that the governor has made his announcement regarding the appointment of Senator Tippets, you can see why it would have been unwise to refer the bill to his committee,” Hill said in an email.
Gov. Butch Otter appointed Tippets to head the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, a job the senator starts July 6. If Tippets holds the post for 42 months, he can spike his public pension more than 650 percent.
Hill said he rerouted the bill to play it safe. “I had heard rumors that the governor was considering him as a possibility,” he wrote Wednesday.
The explanation came after Otter appointed Tippets to the post, the fourth appointment of its kind since February. Otter tapped Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, to head the Department of Insurance, and former Sen. Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, and Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, to the Idaho State Tax Commission board.
Plus, former GOP Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, now the University of Idaho lobbyist, just completed a pension-spike. His pension jumped more than 800 percent.
McKenzie told IdahoReporter.com Wednesday he declined to hear the bill because the idea hadn’t been vetted by the Citizens' Committee on Legislative Compensation, a panel tasked with setting pay rates for lawmakers.
“I just think it should come through that commission,” McKenzie said, adding that he would hear a pension-spiking bill if it has panel approval.
That panel hasn’t met since 2012, when it recommended continuing pay rates and benefits for lawmakers.
Yet, questions remain about that argument. Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told lawmakers this year they likely have the authority to address the issue, though any bill legislators pass may need approval from the citizens commission.
But at least one member of that panel wonders if the citizens committee should address it.
“That could be changed if the Legislature thought it was out of line,” former GOP state senator and panel member Don Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, told the Spokesman Review in 2013. “Somebody could just carry a bill through there and it’d get discussed and everything. I think that’d probably be the way to handle it.”
Critics continue blasting the practice.
“Dangling the potential of a comfortable retirement before lawmakers gives governors enormous political clout,” Marty Trillhaase, the Lewiston Tribune’s liberal columnist, wrote this month. “Every time the governor calls, a lawmaker confronts a potential conflict of interest between his constituents and his own well-being.”
McKenzie said he’s confident pension perks don’t cloud legislators’ judgement as they write laws. “I don’t have a concern about the three branches,” he said.
McKenzie wonders if the state retirement system should treat legislators as part-time employees, as it does now, or full-time workers. Considering legislators full-time would end this debate on pension-spiking.
“I certainly work all year-round,” he said.
Hill wouldn’t signal support or opposition for the bill or concept, waiting for a hearing to issue judgement.
“On the surface, it does not appear to me that HB100 was unconstitutional, but I have not reviewed the A.G.’s opinion or heard all of the concerns—something I would have done before voting on the issue,” Hill wrote.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, said he doesn’t plan to bring back the measure unless Senate leadership clears the path to a full hearing.