Gov. Butch Otter’s administration correctly determined earlier this year that part-time government employees should pay more for their health insurance than fulltime employees. Name a workplace where part-time employees get the same health benefits at the same cost as fulltimers. It hardly happens. For taxpayers, the change is a victory that will save them $10 million a year.
Curiously, however, one group of part-time employees is exempt from the Otter administration’s new rules. Idahoans pay around $780,000 a year to insure members of the House and Senate (a small portion of that amount is for the staff of both chambers). State lawmakers, who are the most visible of the cast of part-timers, will still receive the same lucrative health insurance package that full time government employees enjoy. So while part-time workers are paying $166-$302 a month for insurance, lawmakers benefit from a low monthly premium fancied by fulltimers -- $30 per individual. Taxpayers bear the rest of the cost of each insurance policy. To a public weary of government and skeptical of politicians, it smacks of bureaucratic snobbery.
Was the lawmaker lagniappe made possible by accident or by design? It’s hard to say which because insurance for legislators is a subject that few want to discuss. The governor’s office referred questions to the Legislature. Members and staffers at the Legislature deferred to the citizen’s committee that sets compensation rates for lawmakers. The governor’s Department of Administration didn’t return phone calls.
In June 2008, the citizen compensation panel, which is constitutionally required to set lawmaker salaries and benefits, voted to continue “the system of medical, dental and life insurance and retirement benefits as provided for other state employees.” It didn’t specify anything beyond that. Some contend the panel’s recommendation means lawmakers are to stay on the current system. Others say that because senators and representatives have an annual salary, they’re clearly considered fulltime. Lawmakers get about $16,300 a year, except for the speaker and pro tem, who make $4,000 more.
But Idaho’s Legislature is famously part time. Every schoolchild who tours the state Capitol is told this is so. The Legislature meets in January and is hopefully done with business by March or April. A number of lawmakers do continue working after that – answering to constituents and attending meetings, writing legislation and conferring with colleagues. To them, it really is a full time job. For others, the work stops once the final gavel falls and the work doesn’t start again until the following January.
Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney, in a recent newspaper op-ed, defended the decision to make part-time government employees pay out more for insurance.
“Should an employee, who works the equivalent of 25 percent of the year, receive the same premium contribution from the state as a full-time employee who works all year? A full-time employee would probably agree that the pro-rata structure is more fair and equitable. A part-time employee who is facing higher premiums may disagree,” Gwartney wrote. I asked both the governor’s office and the Department of Administration of Gwartney’s comments apply to the Legislature. The governor’s office declined comment. The department, which works for Otter, never responded to inquiries.
Here’s the bottom line: The citizen panel set nothing in stone when it comes to health insurance for lawmakers. The only thing the panel concluded is that lawmakers can participate in the state group health insurance plan. That means there’s room to correct an inequity – that of part-time lawmakers being treated superiorly to their part-time counterparts elsewhere in state government.
Come January, lawmakers will have to figure out how to cut $150 million (or thereabouts) from the budget. Legislators cannot justify keeping their insurance perks while cutting everywhere else. It’s unfair to other state employees, and it’s unfair to taxpayers who are left with the bill.