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Despite two attempts to kill it, bill to end legislative retirement perk moves on

Despite two attempts to kill it, bill to end legislative retirement perk moves on

Dustin Hurst
March 4, 2015
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March 4, 2015

Despite an extra attempt to kill the plan, a bill to end legislative pension spiking will move forward to an Idaho Senate committee for more deliberations.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Reps. Steven Harris of Meridian and Kelley Packer of McCammon, passed the House twice Tuesday, first on a 38 to 32 vote, then again on a 38 to 29 tally.

On the second consideration, the entire Republican leadership team, including Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakely, Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, and Caucus Chair John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, voted against the bill.

The bill would prevent state lawmakers from serving long tenures in the Capitol before securing an appointment to a high-paying state job, thereby unfairly adding tens of thousands of dollars annually to their taxpayer-funded pensions.

Besides opposing the measure the second time around, it was Vander Woude who successfully petitioned the House to take up the bill again.

Vander Woude, after appealing the first vote, told colleagues he had deep concerns about the constitutionality of the plan, and he suggested a “quick and cleaner” fix would be a large-scale reform of the state’s retirement system.

“I believe there’s another solution to this one,” the Republican said. He suggested lawmakers switch all state workers to a 401k-type system, instead of the guaranteed pension system Idaho now provides thousands of government workers.

Vander Woude did not return an IdahoReporter.com call Tuesday asking if he will bring a bill this year to enact that hefty reform.

Packer and Harris rebuffed Vander Woude’s try, saying the first debate on the bill sufficed.

“We had a robust discussion and we clearly stated both sides,” Packer said. “I think it's time to let this bill go on.”

Harris repeatedly rejected questions about the constitutionality of his plan. “The Legislature put this in and we can take it out,” Harris explained.

The constitutionality of the measure repeatedly came into question on the House floor. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, warned colleagues against passing the plan due to those questions.

“We have absolutely no authority to monkey around in what we’re monkeying around in today, in my opinion,” Wood said. He echoed his own thoughts in the second round of debate.

“We are mucking around in an area we absolutely should not be,” the veteran lawmaker cautioned.

Even Bedke got in on the act, giving up the speaker’s chair for his ordinary legislative desk. “I don't do this often. nor will I,” Bedke said. “I think we are on the verge of making a mistake here today.”

Bedke said it’d be wise for lawmakers to leave wage and benefit decisions to the Citizens’ Committee on Legislative Compensation, which meets every two years to evaluate lawmaker pay.

House Democrats and some staunch conservatives joined forces to beat back leadership and some legislative veterans.

Freshman Republican Heather Scott of Blanchard suggested high hopes for fat pension checks might have fueled some opposition to the plan. “Special rights for legislators is unconscionable,” Scott said.

Boise Democrat Ilana Rubel suggested prior change to state law on pension benefits set a standard for lawmakers in 2015. “The horse left the barn when the original act was passed,” Rubel said.

A guidance paper written by the attorney general’s office at Moyle’s request suggested lawmakers could end the legislative pension-spiking, but that the legislation would likely have to win approval from the citizens committee and then again pass the Legislature.

That document’s author, Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, noted there’s little certainty to provide a final answer on the matter.

Tuesday’s debate provided two odd quirks. First, two lawmakers, GOP Reps. Steve Hartgen of Twin Falls and James Holtzclaw of Meridian, flipped their floor votes after supporting the bill in the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee.

Next, Wood said he’s for a more radical plan for legislative pensions.

“I don’t think the Legislature should enjoy retirement benefits of any kind,” Wood said. “Period.”

The bill will now likely land in the Senate Commerce Committee. That panel’s chairman, Sen. John Tippets, R-Bennington, told IdahoReporter.com he’s inclined to support the measure and pledged to give it a full hearing.

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