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Lawmakers should end the legislative pension perk

Lawmakers should end the legislative pension perk

Wayne Hoffman
January 25, 2011
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January 25, 2011

Former Sen. Bob Geddes of Soda Springs is an outstanding choice for the state Tax Commission. I can’t say enough good things about Geddes, whom I’ve known since before he joined Senate leadership.

An affable figure, Geddes, the former president pro tem of the state Senate, has oodles of well-deserved respect from his legislative colleagues, as well as from individuals and organizations statewide, and from across the political spectrum.

I’ve taken a paragraph to gush about Geddes because I believe these things to be true and because they should be said. And because I don’t want anyone to misconstrue what follows: I hope that Geddes’ appointment will draw attention to the pension perk lawmakers get when they hang up their part-time legislative seat for a full-time state government job.

Getting a job in state government is the ultimate prize, the Holy Grail, for state lawmakers. That’s because a state lawmaker’s pension from years of part-time legislative work increases substantially when said lawmaker joins the state employee rank and file. Geddes is a great example, but he is by no means the first.

Under state law, Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI) pensions are calculated based on a government employee’s length of service and highest 42 months of wages.

Had Geddes merely left the state Senate after 15 years drawing part-time wages in the Legislature, it would have netted him a lifetime post-retirement pension payment of about $370 a month. But if Geddes stays with the Tax Commission’s $85,000-a-year salary for 42 months, he will draw a pension of about $2,900 a month.

There are few superlatives available in the English language that adequately describe what a gift this is.

I don’t begrudge Geddes for receiving it. I do think lawmakers should evaluate the fairness of such a system. It is a generous perk created by the Legislature for the benefit of legislators.

Examples like Geddes are becoming ubiquitous in state government. Former state Reps. Bill Deal and Debbie Field are commonly discussed examples. Pam Ahrens, who ran the state Department of Administration, and Celia Gould, who runs the Department of Agriculture, are other good illustrations of legislators-turned-bureaucrats who enjoy the pension perk ordained by Idaho law.

I’d also point out that the privately-run state teachers’ union, the Idaho Education Association, is a participant in PERSI. That means the IEA’s lobbyists, the executive director and other administrative staff of the union are participants in PERSI.

Those private union employees receive the same pension benefits as state employees. In other words, and this is a real-life example, it is perfectly possible for a state lawmaker to go to work for the IEA and receive a state government pension boost because of his employment by the teachers’ union. I have yet to hear any kind of plausible explanation of how that should be considered good public policy.

Legislative service should be viewed as exactly that — a service. But the current system makes it far too enticing for lawmakers to pursue state employment that bolsters their retirement checks.

Lawmakers have the power to put an end to such perks. The question is whether they’ll have the courage to do it.

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