Since 2010, the Idaho Freedom Foundation has been making the case that state legislators shouldn’t be able to cash in their part-time elected jobs for a full-time state job that comes with a lucrative pension. For several years, lawmakers have advanced bills to end the practice of rewarding retiring legislators with a jump in their retirement pay, but those bills have died silent deaths in the drawers of powerful lawmakers.
Some good news: the politician pension payoff, as I have come to call it, is on its way out.
The Citizens Commission on Legislative Compensation, which sets legislative pay, voted Thursday to end the practice of giving certain legislators a spike in their pension payout should they go on to become state government employees.
To get the politician pension payoff, a legislator must serve a long tenure as a part-time elected official, all the while accruing credit in Idaho’s government retirement program. The longer the tenure, the more potentially lucrative the benefit. Then, the legislator must win favor with the right people and take an appointment to a high-paying state job. After working 42 months in that position, as state retirement rules require, the former lawmaker’s pension jumps by staggering amounts. What once would have been a few hundred dollars per month retirement benefit could easily increase to several thousand dollars a month.
The pension perk has been so lucrative that it had become a rather compelling way for the governor to secure the loyalty of members of the Legislature. Want to be considered for a post in the executive branch? Behave, play your cards right, carry the governor’s water, and your ship just might come in. Over the years, many legislators have left elective office to work for the governor and to benefit from the Legislature-created pension perk.
Some lawmakers have argued—I believe inaccurately—that they were powerless to end the politician pension perk. Those legislators noted that the state's independent citizens commission set legislative pay and that the commission needed to act—even though the Legislature itself enacted the pension perk and legislators have had no trouble benefiting from it all along. Meanwhile, commissioners have previously said ending the perk belongs under the purview of the Legislature, which created the perk as well as the rest of the state pension system. This year, the Citizens Commission on Legislative Compensation changed its opinion, took the lead, and voted to discontinue the pension perk, effective next July.
That means Gov.-elect Brad Little will still be able to select members of his administration from the Legislature, and the legislators who join the administration will still be able to benefit from the pension payout. Nonetheless, the citizens commission has started down a road that hopefully will put the pension perk behind us once and for all. The Legislature should still act to remove the perk from state statute.
Eight years ago, the politician pension payoff was kind of a secret; the general public was not aware of its existence. Not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but some media types, though knowing this is true, don’t want to acknowledge that the Idaho Freedom Foundation brought the pension perk to light. Regardless, we’ve been talking about it nonstop. In the time since we first made Idahoans aware of the pension perk, candidates for office have been asked about it, legislators have tried to address it, voters have complained about it, and even liberal newspaper editorial writers have called for its end.
So today, we are grateful to the members of the Citizens Commission on Legislative Compensation for doing what was plainly the right thing.