Idaho Gov. Butch Otter believes huge pension boosts legislators receive after they take high-paying state jobs is essentially a non-issue.
Otter, speaking to radio hosts on 670 KBOI in Boise Tuesday morning, said he wants the best people to serve in critical state jobs and he often finds capable workers in the legislative ranks.
“When you look at it, it’s really very miniscule,” Otter said.
Otter and legislative leaders continue answering for the arrangement after a slew of appointments to high-paying state jobs for Senate members.
Most recently, Otter appointed Sen. John Tippets, R-Bennington, to lead the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. IdahoReporter.com calculations suggest Tippets could boost his pension, based on total months served in government and the 42 months of highest consecutive pay, 642 percent.
Earlier in the interview, Otter said Tippets’ work in the agricultural industry, combined with his legislative service, helped the senator win the post.
“His vocation really put him at the top of the rung,” Otter said.
Just before that, IdahoReporter.com revealed former Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, finished his pension boost this month, surging his taxpayer-backed payment more than 800 percent thanks to a six-figure salary working as the University of Idaho’s lobbyist.
Had Tippets, Stegner and others simply retired from the Legislature without working 42 months at high-paying state jobs, they would have received somewhere between $400 and $700 a month.
Stegner will take at least $3,600 a month, and Tippets could bring home a similar rate if he leads DEQ for 42 months.
Still, Otter said capable leaders in government keep retirement costs lower than they otherwise would be, eventually saving taxpayers cash.
“I hope they (legislators) get those jobs for that reason,” Otter said.
The governor isn’t alone in defending the practice. Republican House Reps. Stephen Hartgen of Twin Falls and Fred Wood of Burley have defended the pension boosts in recent weeks.
Wood said a bill to the end the practice, a measure the House passed this year, was unconstitutional because the Legislature delegates the authority to set lawmaker pay and compensation to a citizens commission.
Critics say lawmakers gave themselves a perk because they wrote pension payoffs into law. Wood denied that.
“It’s not a special carve-out,” Wood said, according to the Twin Falls Times-News.
Hartgen continually blasts the Idaho Freedom Foundation for its stance on pension boosts. The Twin Falls Republican supported the bill to end pension favoritism in committee, but flip-flopped on the issue on the House floor.
“The attacks are designed to undermine PERSI and eventually end it as a retirement benefit for state workers, but that's not going to happen,” Hartgen said in a June 21 Facebook post on the issue.
Pension-boost critics say the arrangement gives Otter extra power over the legislative process because he can dangle in front of lawmakers the appointments to the high-paying state posts.
“Dangling the potential of a comfortable retirement before lawmakers gives governors enormous political clout,” the Lewiston Tribune’s Marty Trillhaase wrote. “Every time the governor calls, a lawmaker confronts a potential conflict of interest between his constituents and his own well-being.”
The Tippets appointment helped derail the bill to end pension boosts. Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told IdahoReporter.com last week he rerouted the legislation away from Tippets’ committee, where it should have landed.
Instead, the Senate State Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, received the measure. McKenzie declined to hear the bill.
Hear Otter’s explanation below: