Former lawmaker Don Burtenshaw and political activist Eva Gay Yost believe the Idaho Legislature, not a special citizens panel, is the place to address a special pension carve-out for lawmakers.
That’s notable because Yost holds a spot on the citizens panel, and Burtenshaw did until he resigned because his son, Van, won a spot in the Idaho Legislature in 2014.
Burtenshaw, himself an Idaho Senate veteran, told IdahoReporter.com Monday the citizens panel only offers suggestions and advice to legislators.
“That’s what they’re supposed to do now, advising the Legislature,” Burtenshaw said on the phone. “The legislators get to decide what happens with raises or not.”
The issue divides politicos firmly into two camps. Many legislators, led by Reps. Fred Wood, a Republican from Burley, and Stephen Hartgen, a Republican from Twin Falls, believe the Idaho Constitution bans lawmakers from handling their own compensation, which may include pensions.
Others, including Reps. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, and Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, suggest pensions don’t count as compensation, allowing legislators to rework retirement benefits.
Yost divides pensions and pay.
“It would seem to me … that retirement benefits could legitimately be held as a separate issue,” she said Tuesday. “I’m not sure how we would address that.”
Harris and Packer successfully pushed a bill through the Idaho House this year that would have cut down on pension padding by legislative veterans who win appointments to high-paying state jobs after long Capitol careers.
That practice, solely for the people who wrote it, allowed former Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, to boost his pension more than 800 percent. Stegner resigned from the Senate in 2011 to work as the University of Idaho’s lobbyist, a post that paid him roughly $130,000 a year.
Stegner completed the full 42-month boost, as the state retirement system requires, on June 1. Now that his part-time, low-wage legislative service counts under the full-time, higher-paying job, Stegner’s monthly pension payment jumps from $390 to $3,600.
Two former senators, Bob Geddes and Dean Cameron, could clear the $1 million pension mark if they stay in their jobs long enough to clear the 42 month rule. Otter appointed Cameron to lead the Department of Insurance in June and tapped Geddes to head the Department of Administration in May.
Burtenshaw and Yost have no problems with the governor tapping legislators to lead state agencies, even if it means huge pension boosts.
“As far as I am concerned, they are benefitting the state much more than they are benefitting from it monetarily,” Yost said.
“Most of them are super good people who have good heads on ‘em,” Burtenshaw said.
Yet, critics continue blasting the practice. The Lewiston Tribune’s Marty Trillhasse wondered about the carve-out earlier this year.
“Dangling the potential of a comfortable retirement before lawmakers gives governors enormous political clout,” Trillhaase wrote. “Every time the governor calls, a lawmaker confronts a potential conflict of interest between his constituents and his own well-being.”
Yost rejected the idea Otter or any other governor might use appointments and posh retirements to sway lawmakers.
“I do not see Butch Otter engaging in any kind of effort like that,” she said. “If we continue to elect governors of his caliber … I don’t see it being an issue.”
The pension issue has caused problems in the legislative process, though. Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill told IdahoReporter.com earlier this year he rerouted the Harris and Packer bill because Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee John Tippets was rumored to be in line for an appointment.
Hill sent the bill to the Senate State Affairs Committee, where panel Chair Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, declined to hear it.
Tippets, eventually appointed to lead the Department of Environmental Quality, pledged to hear the bill after it passed the House and before Hill got a hold of it.