Times-News dead wrong to support Politician Pension Payoffs

Dustin Hurst Articles

There’s just a little dirt in the brownie.

I remember my church leaders warning against listening to music or watching movies with just a few “bad parts.” I tried to rationalize away taking part, suggesting most of the media I consumed entertained, uplifted or enlightened.

I could ignore the bad stuff, I foolishly told my church advisors.

That’s the same approach the Twin Falls Times-News took to Politician Pension Payoffs this weekend, urging detractors to leave the poor, picked-on retirement system alone.

“Even if – and this is a pretty big if – lawmakers are taking advantage of PERSI, it’s hardly costing taxpayers,” the paper wrote Sunday. “State employees pay into the system, and the money is invested.”

Let’s just ignore the problem, then. Using the same logic, the Times-News would forgive millions in government waste at federal agencies simply because Uncle Sam spends trillions — that’s with a T — a year.

That doesn’t pass the smell test.

Interestingly enough, the Twin Falls Times-News not so long ago endorsed changes to PERSI. The newspaper said the state should block private lobbyists from joining the state pension program, even though they represented a small piece of the retirement pie.

“Maybe a few dozen, many of whom are executive directors or presidents, take part in the benefit,” the paper wrote in September 2013. “That’s a pittance when pooled with the 131,000 highway workers, teachers and clerks in the program.”

Still, the newspaper was adamant that even a small abuse shouldn’t be tolerated: “People already don’t trust their government. The populace assumes that their voice doesn’t count for much when pitted against moneyed interests. And with lobbyists on the public dole, those people might have a point.”

So, which is it, Times-News? Are small abuses of PERSI worth fixing or not? Or are small abuses of the state pension system only OK when the abuse is being conducted by politicians?

An extra $55,000 a year might represent pennies on PERSI’s balance sheets, but that’s real money for average Idahoans. That amount could fund starting pay for one teacher at your kid’s school, with some cash left over for pencils, papers and textbooks.

That extra $55,000 a year Cameron will pocket is bigger than the $47,000 average annual household income for Idaho families. Pennies for PERSI, but real cash for the people paying Cameron’s salary and posh retirement.

Regardless of what pension payoff apologists might have taxpayers believe, this isn’t about the strength of PERSI. IdahoReporter.com and the Idaho Freedom Foundation solely seek to expose a Legislature-created loophole that only serves lawmakers themselves.

As my friend and former colleague Steven Greenhut told IdahoReporter.com recently, such a special arrangement doesn’t exist for poor schmucks in the private sector.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Web page dedicated to this issue reveals a disturbing trend: Legislative leaders, including key committee chairs, serve long careers in the Capitol, win favor of the governor or other key powerbrokers and take appointments to high-paying state jobs.

IFF isn’t alone in this fight. Lewiston Tribune opinion editor Marty Trillhaase detailed the problem pension payoffs present for the political process.

“Dangling the potential of a comfortable retirement before lawmakers gives governors enormous political clout,” Trillhaase wrote. “Every time the governor calls, a lawmaker confronts a potential conflict of interest between his constituents and his own well-being.”

We’ve already seen it. Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, rerouted a bill to end pension payoffs because a committee chairman was under consideration for his own appointment.

The bill eventually died in another committee. This issue won’t die until lawmakers end the special perk they’ve created for themselves. No matter how small or large, public servants have a duty to serve the public, not themselves. Politicians must stop trying to feed this dirty brownie to the taxpayers of Idaho.