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Legislators have messed with their pensions before, records show

Legislators have messed with their pensions before, records show

Dustin Hurst
January 17, 2017
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January 17, 2017

Records uncovered by IdahoReporter.com reveal Idaho lawmakers have at least twice changed Idaho laws that deal with legislators’ retirement benefits.

This stands in contrast to the opinion of Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke. Two weeks ago Bedke told reporters at a press briefing that he believes the Idaho State Constitution bans lawmakers from setting their benefits.

“This is an area where political hay is made on one side of the issue or the other,” Bedke said.

Bedke, along with Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, used the briefing to weigh in on Idaho’s political hot potato issue: pension-spiking by Idaho legislators.

The pension perk works as follows. Legislators serve long terms in the Capitol, while paying small sums into their retirement accounts from their part-time salaries. They then secure a gubernatorial appointment to a high-paying state job.

They stay in that post for at least 42 months. After that, all their part-time service in the Capitol counts as full-time under the high salary rate of the state job.

This simple re-definition skyrockets their annual pension, at the expense of Idaho taxpayers. Pension increases of 500 percent, 600 percent or more are common. Last year, this perk spiked a former legislator’s pension by more than 816 percent.

The Idaho House passed legislation in 2015 to end the scheme, but Hill stuck the bill in a favored committee where it never received a hearing. In the summer of 2016, the Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation considered the issue, but recommended lawmakers handle the problem themselves.

Though legislative records indicate that lawmakers have the right to make decisions about their pensions and pay, Bedke maintains the Idaho Constitution prevents legislators from doing so. Rather, he asserts, such actions are the responsibility of the Citizens Committee.  

“I think the citizens group is very capable of handling this issue,” Bedke told reporters.

But it wasn’t the Citizens Committee that changed pension law in 1985 and 1990.

In 1985, legislators updated state law to outline how the pension system would handle retirement benefits for part-time workers who eventually take full-time jobs within government. This update included part-time city councilors, mayors and others.

The 1985 legislation, Senate Bill 1182, also covered state lawmakers. The bill’s fiscal impact, a statement outlining how the legislation would affect state dollars, announced the measure “would result in a potentially significant favorable impact” to state retirement funds.

In short, the bill drastically reduced the payments made to part-time government officials, including legislators. The bill blocked government officials from morphing their part-time pension credit into full-time, thus taxpayer-backed pension payouts would remain more stable.

Then-state Sen. Phil Batt, who would become Idaho’s 29th governor, served as the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate.

The bill cleared the Idaho Senate on a 32 to 8 vote, with two members listed absent. Among the dissenters: then-state Sen. Mike Crapo, now a U.S. senator, and former state Sen. Denton Darrington, a Republican of Declo.

Idaho House members cleared the bill on a 74 to 5 vote, with five members absent.

Legislators returned to the issue for a second time, in 1990, to re-write how the state would handle part-time pensions -- at least for state lawmakers.

That year, lawmakers carved themselves out of the pension benefit reduction, but left in other part-time government officials.

Crapo introduced the bill in the Senate State Affairs Committee. The bill describes its fiscal impact to the state pension fund as “miniscule.”

Crapo’s bill cleared the committee with ease and passed the full Senate, 38 to 3, with one senator absent. The House saw more dissent, but the measure passed 55 to 23, with six members absent.

Among the members who voted “yea” to write the pension perk into law: then-state Rep. John Tippetts. That’s notable because Tippetts would later serve in the Idaho Senate before receiving a 2015 appointment by Gov. Butch Otter to lead the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

Had Tippets simply retired in 2015 instead of taking Otter’s appointment, he would have earned about $5,900 a year in pension payments.

However, if Tippets hangs on for another three years and six months, at the $123,000 annual salary he earns, he could pocket an annual pension of $43,816.

That’s a 641 percent increase.

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