Lawmakers now an elite class

Wayne Hoffman Government Waste

Most of us recognize that in this economic climate, just having a job is a gift.

In both the private and public sectors, employees have been told to take a day off of work here and there, without pay, in order to help make payroll. That’s the kid-glove treatment. Others have been laid off.

And yet, for some inexplicable reason, a citizens committee voted last week to exempt state lawmakers from the same kind of medicine. The committee voted to recommend that lawmakers continue to earn their salaries of $16,116 a year. That’s the same money legislators have earned for four years running.

Panel chairman Rich Jackson asked, according to a story on IdahoReporter.com, “If we keep legislative salary and benefits low, where does the line cross that no one will run?”

With all due respect to my friend Rich, something tells me a shortage of candidates is not going to be a problem. Indeed, the candidates on the ballot today knew that the legislative compensation committee would meet prior to the November election and that there was a possibility that the committee would recommend a reduction in compensation. And yet those candidates chose to run anyway.

Committee member Debora Kristensen correctly noted that the panel’s decision to leave salaries unchanged “just sends the wrong message.”

“This committee has to be responsive to what’s happening in the rest of the world,” Kristensen said.

The committee did have the courage to reduce legislative allowance to provide constituent services. Many legislators reported they spend far less than the $2,200 they currently receive to communicate with constituents.

Money unspent on constituent services becomes gravy for legislators looking to augment their incomes. Reducing the allowance to $1,875 made some sense.

But the panel punted on the question of health insurance for legislators. Lawmakers receive the same health insurance benefits at the same cost as full-time state government employees. Part-time employees, by edict of the governor’s office, pay a higher premium.

In a survey, the Idaho Freedom Foundation asked whether legislators would support a decision to pay higher health insurance premiums now being paid by part-time employees. Almost 42 percent of our respondents said they would support that decision. Another 28 percent said they would not be impacted by such a decision, 14 percent said they would go without health insurance, and another 14 percent said such a decision would impact their ability to serve.

Every schoolchild on a tour of the Statehouse is told that our legislators are part-timers. And even our legislators, according to our survey, were largely willing to accept the possibility of paying higher insurance premiums as part of their health benefits. Alas, the compensation committee was not willing to go there.

The panel was faced with an excellent opportunity to dial back the pay and benefits of legislators, to make them experience the same cuts being felt throughout the private sector and throughout state government. Instead, the committee decided that legislators are an elite class of state citizen, entitled to unique protections against economic adversity.