The next time you see your local legislator, in the store or at the gas station or wherever, I want you to look him or her in the eye and say, “How the heck did this happen? And what the heck are you going to do about it?”
Don’t mince words. You’re upset. You should be. You just found out that in Idaho, certain lobbyists receive government pensions even though they’re not government employees. Idaho is one of 20 states that allow this practice, according to the Associated Press. Our system lets lobbyists and their organizations represent their special interests while getting to be on the same taxpayer-funded pension system as all the other government workers. They partake in and benefit from the same absurd system that lets employees retire at 50 and receive a monthly check until they die.
When the pension system is underfunded, as it has been in recent years, taxpayers have to kick in more money, not only to protect the lifetime post-employment retirement benefit of ex-government workers, but to make sure the lobbyists on the state pension system do OK, too. These are the same lobbyists who spend their time and energy writing laws to benefit themselves, usually at the expense of taxpayers. So hey, why shouldn’t they get a piece of the lucrative retirement system controlled by the lawmakers they’re trying to influence?
The organizations that benefit from this extreme example of cronyism include the employees of the Idaho Association of Counties, Association of Idaho Cites, Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Education Association. Some of these organizations’ lobbyists do quite well, pulling in six-figure salaries that make their pensions far more lucrative than what lesser-paid public sector pensioners receive.
This system is not news to me; my team of researchers first wrote about it in 2010. What has me wound up about it now, apart from Associated Press story of a few days ago that exposed the issue again, is the lack of outrage among our own lawmakers about the practice, both then and now.
In 2011, Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, proposed a bill that would require non-government pension organizations to be subject to the state’s public records law. The measure was, shall I say, an uninspiring tactic. Lobbyists would get to keep their pension, in exchange for public access to their records. As milquetoast as Hartgen’s proposal was, it got almost no support from the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee. Since then, lawmakers have been silent on the subject.
When IdahoReporter.com asked lawmakers a few days ago about Idaho’s practice, no one jumped at the chance to right this wrong. There was certainly no outrage. Not even a little pretend righteous indignation.
GOP Rep. Paul Romrell of St. Anthony appeared skeptical. “I would think that you’d have to draw a public salary to be on” the pension system, he said. He promised to do some more research on the subject. So did Sen. Fred Martin, a Boise Republican.
Sen. Marv Hagedorn, who has been in the Legislature for seven years, said he’s been aware of the situation and believes it’s something “we need to dive into.” He told IdahoReporter.com that he’s still trying to understand why private groups are enrolled in the public pension system.
I’m more inspired by the lawmakers in other states. The Senate majority leader in Pennsylvania told Watchdog.org that he will work to end the practice in his state. New Jersey Republicans are also vowing to cut lobbyists from receiving the government perk. New York lawmakers are preparing to tackle the problem. A Kansas newspaper demanded lawmakers put the pension practice on ice.
Maybe Idaho’s elected officials just need to hear a bit more from us. We’re outraged, lawmakers. How about you?