Idaho lawmakers voted down a request for upgrades to unstable computer programs for the Public Employment Retiree System of Idaho (PERSI). The decision Tuesday to reject the request comes after the Idaho House voted Feb. 18 to block a 1 percent benefit increase to 33,000 retired state workers using PERSI. The Senate didn’t act on the plan, and the benefit increase went into effect March 1.
Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said she understands that PERSI needs to replace some computer software, but thought lawmakers would balk at the $13 million price tag. “The political reality is that it wouldn’t pass the House,” she said. “(PERSI) could make a good case for needing it, but I was afraid the reality of the political situation is that a motion with $13 million might not go through.” Broadsword said House Republicans that blocked the 1 percent PERSI cost-of-living adjustment felt hung out to dry by the Senate’s inaction.
PERSI Director Don Drum said the computer software, which handles the benefit checks that are mailed out to retirees, will need to be replaced within the next three years. Broadsword and other lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC), which voted down the $13 million for upgrades, said lawmakers will likely approve that money in the future. “I was hoping that they could wait one more year,” Broadsword said.
“We just thought it was the better part of valor to wait a year,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene.
Drum said the computer system isn’t broken, but is unreliable. “It frequently goes down and we have to reboot it,” he said. “That’s a sign of instability in the system.” That rebooting can take as little as five minutes, but can occur any time of day when the system is processing benefit checks. Drum said that means he has some staff on call 24 hours a day during that time. He said the instabilities wouldn’t lead to retirees not getting their benefits, but could delay payments by a day or two, which could harm some retirees living month-to-month.
The $13 million in upgrades would have come from PERSI’s investment portfolio, which stands at more than $10 billion. However, PERSI has an unfunded liability of $2.6 billion, according to House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and other House Republicans. “I think this might only exacerbate that problem,” said Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls.
Democrats on JFAC attempted to give PERSI authority to spend $13 million or $7 million for the new computer software. Gov. Butch Otter also recommended it in his budget presentation. Otter and House Democrats also opposed the plan to block the 1 percent increase in PERSI benefits.
Sen. Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello, said the delaying the upgrades could be an attempt to settle scores with PERSI. “I hope that this is not something that is not punitive,” she said.
“If we have an IT system that PERSI’s being asked to use that’s not being reliable and will threaten the ability of people to get their checks on time (then) we shouldn’t be intimidated by past discussions,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow. Party-line votes in JFAC thwarted attempts to give PERSI funding for the new computer software, with Republicans opposed to the funding and Democrats in favor.