Democrat Werk gets a pass as lawmakers move to end special retirement perk

Democrat Werk gets a pass as lawmakers move to end special retirement perk

by
Dustin Hurst
February 17, 2015
Dustin Hurst
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February 17, 2015

Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, should count his blessings.

That, or he could tally the dollars that will soon flow into his retirement account, courtesy of Idaho taxpayers.

Gov. Butch Otter appointed the Democrat to fill a seat on the Idaho Tax Commission Tuesday, a full-time job with a full-time salary -- $87,000 annually. Werk resigned his Senate seat Tuesday after serving since 2002.

Besides the hefty salary, if Werk stays 42 months or longer, he can add more than $20,000 a year to his retirement account, thanks to a loophole in how the state calculates legislative pensions.

Just hours after Otter announced the appointment, members of the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee unanimously approved legislation to close the loophole.

Luckily for Werk, he gets a pass. If the bill eventually finds its way to Otter’s desk, the loophole will close on July 1, 2015, and lawmakers appointed to high-paying jobs before then will still qualify for huge pension spikes.

Werk is hardly the first to go this route. Otter’s former campaign manager, Debbie Field, served 43 months in a high-paying appointed position after serving a lengthy stint in the Idaho House. Field added $1,500 a month to her pension through the 43-month stay.

Other lawmakers who’ve gone down a similar path include former Rep. Ken Roberts, a Republican from Donnelly, who now serves on the commission, and Sen. Joe Stegner, a Republican from Lewiston who took a top job with the University of Idaho.

Former Republican House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, too, qualified for the perk, after taking a top job with Boise State University.

Werk stands to gain mightily if he hangs on 42 months. If he does, his pension would be around $27,000 a year, or $2,250 a month.

Had the Democrat from District 17 stayed in the Senate for 42 months and then resigned, he would have received about $5,200 a year. If he had simply resigned Tuesday and not taken the job? His pension would be just less than $4,000 a year.

Under the plan to close the loophole, co-authored by Reps. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, and Steve Harris, R-Meridian, Werk would have earned significantly less. Using rough numbers, Werk would have seen $1,253 a month from his pension under the Harris-Packer plan, or about $15,000 annually.

As-is, because the law wouldn’t take effect until July, Werk will qualify for the $27,000 annually if he stays with the commission for 42 months.

The revised formula, Packer said, calculates legislator benefits the same way as part-time mayor or city councilors.

“This will level the playing field,” Packer said.

Harris said the carve-out is unfair. “One of these things is not like the other,” Harris said. “We need to get rid of that.”

The measure now heads to the House floor. Lawmakers tried to end the loophole in 2012, but former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, blocked the bill. Denney, who now serves as secretary of state, will add thousands to his pension annually if he stays 42 months.

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