A former Idaho lawmaker says House Speaker Scott Bedke has it wrong when Bedke said the Legislature can’t end a lucrative pension perk that enriches former legislators.
Last week, former Idaho state Sen. Rod Beck told IdahoReporter lawmakers have the power to change pension law because they’ve done it before.
“They do it all the time,” Beck said. “The Legislature has dealt with pensions in the past.”
He should know. During his time in the Idaho Senate, Beck focused on pension issues and spearheaded efforts to reform, or at least limit, the government retirement system.
Beck’s correction came after Bedke told reporters at a press briefing in the Capitol Friday that he believes the Idaho State Constitution blocks legislators from acting on their own pay issues, and he counts pensions as compensation.
“It’s written in plain English,” Bedke said. “That’s a power that has been wisely removed from the Legislature in the past.”
The pension perk works as follows. Legislators serve long terms in the Capitol, while paying small sums into their retirement accounts from their part-time salaries. They then win a gubernatorial appointment to a high-paying state job.
They stay in that post for at least 42 months. After that, all their part-time service in the Capitol counts as full-time under the high salary rate of the state job.
This skyrockets their annual pension, at the expense of Idaho taxpayers. Pension increases of 500 percent, 600 percent or more are common. Last year, this perk spiked a former legislator’s pension by more than 816 percent.
The issue has become something of a political hot potato. In 2015, the Idaho House passed a bill to end the practice, but Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill stuck the legislation in a favored committee, where it died. Then last year, the Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation urged lawmakers to handle the issue, as the panel felt it inappropriate to take to action.
“Who gets to decide if legislators are full-time or part-time?” asked Citizens Committee Chair Deb Kristensen during its June meeting. She answered, “I don’t believe that’s us.”
Such is the multi-million dollar question no one can answer. If lawmakers are full-time workers, the conversation likely dies. But the state classifies — and pays — lawmakers as part-time employees, which has led to the pension-reform difficulties.
At the same June meeting, Deputy Attorney General Michael Gilmore weighed in on which body should take action and suggested the Legislature and the panel may need to work in tandem. He noted, the law doesn’t offer clear direction on how to clean up the loophole, even though the Legislature itself created the scheme through legislation in the 1990s.
Beck said the duty falls to lawmakers. “The legislative compensation committee is correct,” he said. He cited significant pension changes in the 1990s, including the creation of the perk itself, as evidence.
“That logic is flawed beyond reason,” Beck said of Bedke’s assertion that lawmakers can’t address the perk.
Hill took a different route to defend the scheme. The senate pro tem said it’s “a little bit insulting” to intimate the governor would consider compensation as a top factor when handing out appointments.
Hill said, the governor “has a fiduciary responsibility responsibility to the citizens of this state to make the best choices based on the situation and on the facts that are present for that particular nominee.”
The senate pro tem added that he is “not sure” how to resolve the issue.