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Harris reverses course, will take on pension payoffs in 2016

Harris reverses course, will take on pension payoffs in 2016

Dustin Hurst
July 8, 2015
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July 8, 2015
Rep. Steven Harris said he will try again to end special pension payoffs for state legislators.
Rep. Steven Harris said he will try again to end special pension payoffs for state legislators.

A Meridian state lawmaker will try a second time to end special pension payoffs for legislators after the Idaho Senate killed the attempt earlier this year.

Meridian Republican Rep. Steven Harris told IdahoReporter.com he will craft legislation this fall with the aim of cutting pension abuse by lawmakers who serve long careers in the Capitol, win an appointment to a high-paying state job and parlay that into retirement increases of as much as 800 percent.

“It is my intent to lead with a bill,” Harris said.

Harris, along with co-sponsor Rep. Kelley Packer, a Republican from McCammon, pushed House Bill 100 this year to end the practice. The measure cleared the Idaho House, despite fervent opposition -- including a special procedural maneuver.

The measure died in the Senate State Affairs Committee after Chair Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, declined to give it a hearing. McKenzie later told IdahoReporter.com he believes the measure unconstitutional because it allows legislators, not a special citizens committee, to decide lawmakers’ compensation.

A section of the Idaho Constitution blocks lawmakers from setting their own pay and other compensation.

Harris and allies argued this year the language in the Constitution doesn’t apply to the pension calculation House Bill 100 would have altered.

Next year, Harris said he will look at every option on the table, including asking the citizens committee to address the issue when it meets in November 2016. To get there, Harris may write the request into law, or he could take a softer approach with a resolution.

“I’d do a bill to allow the citizens committee to weigh in,” Harris said. “They will anyway.”

The new approach comes close to language offered in the latest legal opinion written about pension payoffs. That document, penned by Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane this year, said lawmakers can change the pension arrangement, but would likely need the citizen committee’s approval afterward.

Based upon the above, the most conservative legal counsel that can be offered is that the Legislature possesses the authority to adopt H.100,” Kane wrote. “But that legislation will likely require approval (which could be as simple as maintaining the benefits as provided by statute) by the Citizens' Committee and subsequent acceptance by the 2017 Legislature.”

Harris has yet to approach Packer about re-uniting for a second act, but said he’d love to work with her again. Packer has yet to respond to an IdahoReporter.com email on the topic.

Harris’ decision to pursue pension payoff reform comes after Gov. Butch Otter appointed a string of senators to high-paying state jobs, placing them in line for boosted pensions. Most recently, Otter appointed Sen. John Tippetts, R-Bennington, to lead the Department of Environmental Quality.

If he stays in the post for 42 months, Tippets could take his pension from $342 a month to more than $3,600 a month, a 642 percent increase.

Former Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, just completed a pension boost last month, using his post as a lobbyist for the University of Idaho to increase his pension more than 800 percent.

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