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Tippets hits pension jackpot, could boost taxpayer-backed retirement 641 percent

Tippets hits pension jackpot, could boost taxpayer-backed retirement 641 percent

Dustin Hurst
June 15, 2015
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June 15, 2015
Sen. John Tippets, R-Bennington, is the latest senator to win an appointment to a high-paying state job.
Sen. John Tippets, R-Bennington, is the latest senator to win an appointment to a high-paying state job.

Sen. John Tippets, R-Bennington, could boost his taxpayer-backed pension payments thanks to a special legislative carve-out paired with an appointment from Gov. Butch Otter.

Otter announced Tippets as the new head of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality on Monday, a post the senator will take July 6.

The governor’s move serves as the latest in a line of appointments for senators to high-ranking and high-paying state jobs.

In the last few weeks, Otter appointed former Sen. Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, to head the Department of Administration, and Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, to lead the Idaho Department of Insurance.

Tippetts replaced Geddes in the Senate in 2011 when Otter appointed him to serve on the Idaho State Tax Commission oversight board, a post Geddes held for 12 months before returning to the private sector.

In February, Otter appointed Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, to serve on the tax board.

Tippets will replace acting director Jess Byrne. Otter praised Tippets in Monday press release.

“During this selection process I was particularly impressed with his vision for the agency, his commitment to its success, his grasp of the issues and his understanding of the dynamic between DEQ and the EPA,” Otter’s statement said. “That’s critically important as Idaho works to assume control over issuance of water pollutant discharge permits in the coming years.”

Tippets, head of the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee, could boost his taxpayer-backed pension if he stays in the post 42 months. Thanks to a special loophole in Idaho law created and sustained by the Legislature, Tippets and the other senators can count their part-time, low-wage Capitol service under the higher pay rates for retirement calculations if they clear 42 months.

Had Tippets simply retired instead of taking Otter’s appointment, he would have earned about $5,900 a year in pension payments.

If Tippets hangs on for three years and six months at the $110,000 annual salary he will likely earn, he could pocket $43,816 a year.

That’s a 641 percent increase.

The Idaho House passed legislation earlier this year to end the loophole, a measure that would have dramatically reduced the pension spikes earned by appointees. The Senate State Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, declined to hear the bill, carried in the House by Republicans Reps. Steve Harris of Meridian and Kelley Packer of McCammon.

Interestingly enough, Tippets’ panel should have received that bill in the Idaho Senate, as its House counterpart heard and eventually passed the measure. Tippets told IdahoReporter.com he likely would have supported the bill and said he was inclined to give it a hearing.

It wasn’t to be, though. Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, sent the bill to McKenzie’s committee, a panel stacked with Senate Republican and Democratic leaders.

Hill told the Post Register Monday he was undecided on the bill. He also said he never directed McKenzie not to hold hearings.

“Contrary to what the Freedom Foundation has reported — they never asked me — I didn’t talk Sen. McKenzie one way or the other. I assumed he would give it a hearing, but that’s his prerogative,” Hill told the Post Register.

IdahoReporter.com didn’t report Hill leaned on McKenzie to kill the measure, only that Hill, the Senate Pro Tem, directed the measure to a pet committee.

Hill did not answer an April 20 email asking why he rerouted the bill away from Tippets’ committee. IdahoReporter.com re-sent the question to Hill Monday morning. He has yet to reply.

Critics have long questioned pension-spiking in Idaho.

“It just smells wrong,” former Blackfoot Rep. Dennis Lake, a Republican, told the Post Register Monday.

“I don't think people really understand pension spiking, but it's easy to explain: Government officials game the system so that they can inflate their final salary and retire with lots more public dollars,” Steven Greenhut, columnist for the San Diego Tribune and pension expert, told IdahoReporter.com recently.

Harris told IdahoReporter.com Monday he’s unlikely to take another shot at pension-spiking, believing the effort futile.

“I don’t believe the Senate would let it come to the floor,” Harris said. “So, House leadership probably wouldn’t let it come to the floor knowing it wouldn’t come up in the Senate.”

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