A former Idaho House chairman believes state lawmakers have the authority to end a perk that allows them to boost their taxpayer-backed pensions by as much as 800 percent.
Former Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, told IdahoReporter.com Wednesday the Legislature can -- and should -- address the pension perk.
“They were the ones that gave themselves that perk,” Lake said. “The Legislature has to do it.”
Lake pushed a bill to end the pension perk in 2012, but a key committee chairman held the measure after one hearing on the matter.
After Lake’s retirement, the issue died until Reps. Stephen Harris, R-Meridian, and Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, pushed a similar bill this year. That measure cleared the House, but Senate State Affairs Committee Chair Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, refused to hear it.
Since then, Gov. Butch Otter has appointed two senators, Dean Cameron of Rupert and John Tippets of Bennington, to lead agencies in his branch of government. Cameron will lead the Department of Insurance, Tippets the Department of Environmental Quality.
The appointments place both men on track to boost their pensions more than 500 percent each. After each remains on the job at least 42 months, their part-time, low-wage legislative service will count at the higher-wage rate of the state job.
McKenzie believed the issue unconstitutional, echoing the refrain of Reps. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, and Fred Wood, R-Burley, vocal opponents of the bill.
“House Bill 100 was patently unconstitutional,” Wood told Magic Valley Republicans recently.
Lake disagrees. “That’s the biggest fooey I’ve heard,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The Idaho Constitution delegates to a citizens committee the power to determine pay and benefits for Idaho legislators. Critics like Wood and Hartgen contend that committee, not lawmakers, needs to address the problem.
Lake said only legislators can write a fix. “They created it,” he said. “They can end it.”
Citizens committee member Don Burtenshaw, a former Republican House member from Terreton, told the Spokesman Review in 2013 the Legislature, not his panel, needs to handle it.
As sides point fingers, dissent continues growing. Lake isn’t the only former lawmaker upset about the pension perk. Former Rep. Robert Schaeffer, R-Nampa, wants legislative leaders to do the right thing.
“It’s improper,” he said Tuesday. “It never should have been that way.”
A legal opinion from the Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane, written this year, provided a little insight.
“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, adding the approved measure would likely need to face the citizens committee before taking effect.
Kane noted, though, lawmakers have changed their pension payouts in the past.
“However, since 1976, there have been a number of legislative changes to the PERSI statutes, which could have increased retirement benefits for retiring legislators,” he wrote.
Most recently, former Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Burley, carried 2000’s House Bill 511, which slightly increased pension payouts for all pension participants.
Schaefer and Lake disagree if Cameron’s bill, sponsored by former Rep. Bert Marley in the House, sets a precedent.
“They do, don’t they?” Schaefer said when asked if lawmakers can change their pensions. “They just did.”
Lake disagreed. “That applied to everybody,” Lake said. “I would say that’s not an indicator.”
As chair of the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee, Schaefer presided over House Bill 511’s panel hearing in 2000. He doesn’t remember the issue, but told IdahoReporter.com he believes that bill, among others, gives lawmakers authority to handle pension changes.
“They cannot have it both ways,” Schaeffer said. “There’s already a precedent.”
Lake said the self-serving nature of the perk should sway lawmakers to end it. “No one else can do it,” he said. “Mayors can’t do it, the governor can’t do it and city councilors can’t do it.”
Once denied, Lake believes legislators will soon end the perk.
“This isn’t going away,” he said. “I think everyone understands it’s not fair.”