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Explained: Why Politician Pension Payoffs matter

Explained: Why Politician Pension Payoffs matter

Fred Birnbaum
June 29, 2015
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June 29, 2015

The recent appointments of Sens. Dean Cameron and John Tippets to director-level positions have appropriately raised a few eyebrows.

Some of the issues are known and defenders of the practice of allowing long-serving Idaho legislators to slide into senior positions within the executive branch claim large pension increases are worth the cost.

As Gov. Butch Otter told 670 KBOI listeners last week, his agencies get experienced legislators and the burden on the state retirement system is next to nothing.

Or so the story goes.

As Political Pension Payoff apologists circle the wagons to protect their perk, let’s take a second to examine why Idaho should eliminate the sweetheart deal.

The pension formula, which allows connected legislators to boost their pensions by as much as 800 percent a year, violates too many principles of good governance.

The appointments of Cameron and Tippets to the directorships of the Departments of Insurance and Environmental Quality, respectively, came after the end of the 2015 legislative session. Therefore, the senators were acting in their capacity as legislators with the possible foreknowledge they would would receive appointments. They may have written and approved budgets for state agencies with the knowledge they’d soon lead those departments.

Cameron and Tippets, as committee chairmen, held considerable power to shape legislative action. Any Governor, with an eye toward advancing an agenda, would naturally be in a position to reciprocate any favors with a key appointment. No quid pro quo would have to be stated.

Now more than ever, large government departments need dynamic leadership – often this entails takings risks, shaking up settled operating modes, and making changes in key managerial positions.

However, everyone in state government will understand that former legislators will need 42 months of service to qualify for the higher pensions. This will likely promote timid leadership. Rocking the boat and ruffling the feathers of the entrenched bureaucracy might result in tension, unpopularity and, ultimately, dismissal.

Why should anyone assume legislative experience translates into effective leadership of an executive department? Sure, former legislators will likely have better rapport with their former colleagues than an outsider. However, isn’t the reason we separate the legislative and executive branches is that it provides a system of checks and balances. We don’t want the executive branch to appropriate their own money so having former appropriators making budget requests of their colleagues hardly sounds like an improvement.

When we compare the benefits that accrue to these legislators with the risks to Idaho taxpayers, we can conclude that the Politician Pension Payoff formula must be eliminated. Department directors must be in service to the governor and Idaho taxpayers, independent of the Legislature but subject to oversight by lawmakers.

Creating a lucrative revolving door moves us in the wrong direction.

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