Knowing private lobbyists participate in the state’s public pension system bothers some Idaho lawmakers.
The irritation, though, doesn’t mean they plan to address what they see as a problem in the 2014 legislative session, which began this week in Boise.
House Commerce and Human Resources Chairmen Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, told IdahoReporter.com that he’s tried twice to fix the problem of private interest groups or unions like the Idaho Education Association participating in the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho.
“I’ve given it two shots previously and was unable to gain any traction in the House,” Hartgen explained.
In 2011, Hartgen teamed with then-Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Post Falls, to amend Idaho Code to ban private groups from participating in the state’s taxpayer-funded pension system. That bill, introduced in a House committee, never received a formal hearing.
That same year, Hartgen tried a different maneuver, pitching a bill that would have forced private groups participating in PERSI to be subject to Idaho’s open records laws. Lawmakers didn’t hear that bill, either.
The failures have weakened the Twin Falls Republican’s resolve on the issue. He said that while he’d like to take another swing at the problem, he has other priorities in 2014. “I’ve got other things I can do,” he said.
The issue continues to bother state Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, though he also says the PERSI problem is not on his radar for this year at the Capitol in Boise.
“I don’t know,” Hagedorn said when asked if he thought lawmakers might address the issue this year. “I don’t know if anyone is going to take that up.”
Idaho is one of only 20 states that allows private interest groups to take part in the government pension program. The issue, usually on the backburner while high-profile social issues or budgetary matters steal the forefront, received its time in the limelight earlier this year when the Associated Press dug into the practice. The AP report revealed the case of a New York lobbyist who earns $204,000 annually, drives a company car and will receive his taxpayer-funded pension when he retires.
While the pension rolls for other states boast myriad private lobbyists among the ranks, Idaho’s situation isn’t quite as drastic. Of PERSI’s 762 participating employers, only a few are private interest groups: the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho Public Employees Association, the Idaho Association of Cities and the Idaho Association of Counties, among others.
Yet, allowing private interest groups, who can often offer higher pay than public employers, creates a problem where benefits are concerned.
Former Idaho Education President Sherri Wood, for example, spiked her publicly funded pension by nearly $40,000 a year by working for a higher salary at the group than her previous employer, the Caldwell School District.
Penni Cyr, the IEA’s sitting president, can spike her public pension by more than $30,000 if she stays with the group for at least 42 months, the time span which PERSI uses to determine benefit payments upon retirement.
Hartgen recognizes, though, the battle would be tough because lawmakers would cut off private groups from a relatively healthy pension program, guaranteed by taxpayer cash. He said his bills failed, in part, because lawmakers didn’t want to tussle with interest groups back home.
If some lawmaker is willing to take on the issue, Hartgen said he’s still open to the idea. “I chair the committee and I would give it a fair look,” he said.