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Hartgen: No bill this year to fix pension-boosting loophole

Hartgen: No bill this year to fix pension-boosting loophole

Dustin Hurst
February 22, 2016
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February 22, 2016

House Commerce and Human Resources Committee Chairman Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said there will not be a bill to fix a legislative pension perk during the 2016 session.

Hartgen told IdahoReporter.com he isn’t inclined to hear the bill again this year.

“I do not agree with the premise,” Hartgen said of a potential fix. “Removing the so-called [perk] would remove most legislators from the pool, which I do not think we should do, as they often have the best resumes for state agency leadership.”

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 is counted 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.

Reps. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, and Steve Harris, R-Meridian, successfully navigated a bill to fix the scheme through the House in 2015, only to have Senate leadership kill it by tucking it away in a favored committee.

Harris told IdahoReporter.com last summer he planned to try again this year, but he reversed course last week and said he will not run the proposal.

Even if Harris wanted to propose the measure again, Hartgen would likely serve as a roadblock. Legislative rules give committee chairmen like Hartgen the power to hold bills they don’t like, effectively killing the proposals.

And Hartgen probably wouldn’t find favor in a bill to end the loophole were one to come to his panel in 2016, even though he voted for the 2015 iteration in a committee hearing.

The chairman, a House veteran, gave a handful of reasons why he’s not a fan of potential fix legislation.

“We debated this thoroughly last year in the House and the issue has not been shown any additional urgency at this time,” he wrote in an email.

Hartgen added, even if the House deliberates it and passes it, the Senate just isn’t interested in considering a fix.

“The Senate has already indicated they will not hear the bill,” he said.

Finally, he pointed out, his panel is not privileged, a special designation some committees hold that allows them to introduce legislation at any point during sessions. As a non-privileged panel, Hartgen’s committee is somewhat limited in the bills it can hear.

That is, of course, unless leadership wants bills to be heard. House Speaker Scott Bedke could authorize Hartgen’s committee to introduce legislation, though that’s also not likely.

Bedke himself left his speaker’s chair in the House chamber -- a very rare move -- to speak against last year’s bill.

The speaker did not responded to an email on the issue.

House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, did respond to an IdahoReporter.com email, but said he doesn’t know why the Legislature won’t hear any bills on the issue this year.

Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, who tanked the 2015 version, responded similarly.

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