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Legislative perk exposed, now lawmakers must eliminate special benefit

Legislative perk exposed, now lawmakers must eliminate special benefit

Wayne Hoffman
October 11, 2011

The recent dustup over legislators pocketing extra cash thanks to their living arrangements is disappointing by itself, but misses a bigger, much more irritating point.

As a refresher, Sens. John McGee of Caldwell and Curt McKenzie of Nampa were criticized in news articles for having collected an additional $122 a day during the legislative session — taxpayer money that is dispersed to legislators to help with the costs of a second residence in Boise. It’s now well known that neither McGee nor McKenzie maintain a second residence. McGee slept at his parents’ house and McKenzie on his law firm’s couch, according to an Associated Press report.

Legislators who maintain a second residence in Boise are supposed to get that cash. Those who don’t get $49 a day plus mileage reimbursements.

But wait, there’s more. Much more. Legislators who live within 50 miles of Boise have their per diem payments taxed, meaning those payments are included in their pension calculation. Those living outside the radius receive an untaxed reimbursement.

That means Treasure Valley lawmakers, especially those collecting the $122 a day, benefit in higher annual take home pay that results in bigger retirement checks, courtesy of taxpayers.

McGee and McKenzie’s annual base salary as legislators is a little more than $16,000 a year. But with their taxable reimbursements and salary combined, they took in close to $33,000 each in Fiscal Year 2009, according to state payroll records. Their last two years’ gross pay was about $27,800 and $29,000 a piece. Their pensions will be calculated from the higher figure, not from the seemingly paltry $16,000 annual rate.

The retirement difference is considerable. At the $16,000 rate, a legislator who spends 20 years in office would leave with a base monthly pension benefit of about $533. The legislator whose salary is calculated to be $33,000 a year — because of his per diem is lumped in with his regular legislative pay — would have a base pension check of about $1,100 a month after the same 20 years in office.

One of the Legislature’s leading retirement system gurus is already contemplating a fix. Rep. Dennis Lake of Blackfoot says he’s willing to take down the disparity during the next legislative session. Lake, in the last legislative session, also had designs on another perk of the Legislature — that of lawmakers being able to include their legislative service as part of their retirement pay after they land a sweet government job. Lake introduced a bill last session to remove the perk, but the bill didn’t make it anywhere.

Some legislators will insist that the per diem problem is one best addressed by the citizens committee responsible for legislative compensation, a panel that meets every even-numbered year. They’re wrong.

First, remember that the citizens panel also punted last year and left our part-time legislators receiving full-time health insurance benefits. Second, it takes a simple change to state law to solve the problem, and that’s the purview of the Legislature.

It’s bad enough that government — local, state and federal — is larded up with all kinds of giveaways and entitlements for favored classes and special interests. But legislators have a singular obligation to make sure they’re not the favored class, the special interest getting the government perk at the expense of taxpayers.

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