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Legislator says judicial pension reform now a bargaining chip in legislative standoff

Legislator says judicial pension reform now a bargaining chip in legislative standoff

Dustin Hurst
March 26, 2012
Dustin Hurst
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March 26, 2012

The legislative session is waning and several bills are being held hostage by Senate and House leadership as compromise is sought on a few small issues.

That standoff could derail a few bills, including one to bring the state’s judicial pension system into solvency. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, told IdahoReporter.com late last week that the bill, one he sponsored, has become a bargaining chip for legislative leadership.

The bill, which cleared the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee with unanimous support last week, was immediately sent to the bottom of the workload list on the House floor. That could mean the bill’s death, as lawmakers typically leave a few bills on the list at the end of each session.

Lake was unsure how his pension bill might be used in negotiations. House and Senate leaders are in talks over a few measures, including teacher pay and tax cuts. Two animal cruelty bills, one passed by the House and one by the Senate, are awaiting hearings in the opposing body, which has also become a part of negotiations.

Lake’s legislation would reform Idaho’s judicial pension system to fill a large funding gap, projected to be in excess of $10 million. The state and judges themselves would be asked to pay more for judicial retirements and filing fees would be increased as well.

Overall, if the bill comes out of the legislative basement, taxpayers will be forced to pay at least $900,000 more each year for judicial pensions.

The additional funds are combined with some cuts. One of the biggest reductions is the surviving spouse benefit, reduced from 50 percent paid after death to 30 percent of a judge’s pension.

Judges, who average in excess of $100,000 each year in pay, typically take in about $70,000 annually after 15 years of service to Idaho.

The judicial program, independently managed in the past, would come under the direct supervision of the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI) if the legislation clears the House and Senate.

The pension funding gap is a problem Lake and others have struggled to address in prior years. Only after several direct negotiation sessions with the courts and the executive branch did the measure move forward. Lake feels the legislation isn’t perfect, but it’s the only deal to which all parties would agree.

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