A few weeks ago, Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, blocked a bill to end legislative pension-spiking by former lawmakers. The bill, brought by Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, would have essentially prevented legislators spiking their taxpayer-funded pensions by taking high-paying state jobs after lengthy careers in the Idaho Capitol.
The bill was heard by the House State Affairs Committee early in the session, but because Lake had to attend another meeting during the hearing, committee members couldn’t get answers to their questions and held the measure at the call of the panel chair.
That call never came and will not come this year. House State Affairs Committee chair Tom Loertescher, R-Iona, told IdahoReporter.com last week that he placed a hold on the bill at Denney’s request.
When approached about the issue, Denney said that he feels it’s completely improper for lawmakers to decide issues relating to their own salary and benefits. He cited Article III, Section 23 of the Idaho Constitution which establishes a citizens’ committee to determine lawmaker pay and expenses.
That component of the Idaho Constitution does give the citizens’ committee the duty to set pay for lawmakers, but it also gives the Legislature the authority to reject the panel’s pay recommendation as long as the legislators do it by the 25th day of a session immediately following an election.
Even then, lawmakers slightly tweaked their retirement benefits earlier this year by removing per diem payments they receive during legislative sessions from pension calculations. Denney said that bill was something that didn’t necessarily need to go through the citizens’ committee, but that it could have.
He added that if the per diem bill had increased pay or benefits in any way, it would have needed to go through the citizens’ panel.
In an interview Friday, the Midvale Republican said that while he isn’t necessarily seeking a high-paying state job after his legislative careers ends, he wouldn’t necessarily turn it down. “I have not applied for any job,” Denney said. “If one comes along, maybe. But it would be a job that would suit my abilities.”
The pension-spiking issue has resulted in some former state lawmakers increasing their state pensions by considerable amounts.
- Former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb took a lobbyist job with Boise State after his electoral defeat and brings in more than $100,000 annually. If he meets the 42-month requirement for the state’s pension program, his legislative pension could jump several thousands of dollars annually.
- Former Idaho Senate Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, resigned from the Idaho Senate last year and Gov. Butch Otter tabbed him for the Idaho State Tax Commission oversight board. While Geddes resigned from the commission after a year, had he stayed on for 42 months, his pension, too, would have jumped by more than $2,500 a month, or in excess of $30,000 annually.
- Other lawmakers have taken advantage of the pricy perk. Former Senate Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, took a job as University of Idaho’s chief lobbyist late last year, seeing a raise from the $16,000 lawmaker pay rate to $124,000 paid him by the school. If he meets the time requirement, his pension will increase will more than $3,500 a month.
- Former Rep. Debbie Field, R-Boise, retired as head of the Office of Drug Policy last year, just 43 months after being appointed to the job by Gov. Butch Otter. With her $70,000-a-year salary counting in her pension calculation, Field is set to bring in about $23,052 annually. If she had not been appointed to the post after losing her House election in 2006, her pension would be approximately $5,316 a year.
Loertscher, who isn’t necessarily a fan of lawmakers taking part in the pension program, says the problem may not be as some might think. “There has been some,” Loertscher said of past pension-hike recipients. “But I’m wondering if it’s to the degree that Rep. Lake has represented it to be.”
He also seemingly shrugged off the issue, saying that there are some public “misconceptions” about the issue.
But Lake countered, firing back at Loertscher’s sentiment. “It’s probably not that big of an issue to legislators, but it is a big issue with the people out there,” Lake said.
Lake declined to say he feels Denney is blocking the bill for his own personal gain. “I can’t speak to his motivation,” he said.
The issue is likely dead for the year and could be doomed unless another lawmaker steps forward to advocate pension reform. Lake is retiring in December and won’t be back at the Capitol in January. Still, he believes someone will take up his mantel. “I don’t think the issue dies,” he said. “I think there are enough people who are aware of it.”