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Who would have believed it … candidates talking about pension reform

Who would have believed it … candidates talking about pension reform

Wayne Hoffman
October 17, 2014
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October 17, 2014

Hooray for progress. For the first time that I can ever remember, candidates for statewide office are talking about Idaho's pension system. What a blessing it is to finally have an election conversation about PERSI, the costly system that provides for Idaho government employees in their retirement.

Midvale Republican Lawerence Denney started the water boiling during a TV debate in which he said, “I think that it is a good idea to take all elected officials off the PERSI system.” Denney is a state representative running for secretary of state.

Should Denney win, he'll be able to parlay his pension check from one with a benefit of several hundred dollars a month to one worth more than $3,000 a month. That's the nature of the PERSI system, which recognizes a government employee's time on the job and highest 42 months of salary in the pension calculation.

Rep. Holli Woodings, a Boise Democrat running against Denney, countered in a press release that such a move to ditch PERSI for electoids would harm locals ranging from the mayor to the county coroner: “The assertion that these devoted public servants should not be eligible for the same employment benefits as non-elected employees is nonsense.”

The House Commerce chairman, Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, wondered whether Woodings would be equally passionate about the need to get private lobbying organizations off the state pension system, including the Idaho Education Association, which lobbies the same state government that provides its retirement benefit.

But Denney noted in the debate he's not suggesting that elected officials not have retirement benefits, just that perhaps they should be on a defined contribution plan—a 401k retirement benefit like what most private sector organizations and businesses provide.

Said Denney, as quoted in the Spokesman-Review newspaper, "I think that if you remove the retirement portion totally from all legislators, if you remove that retirement portion from all elected officials and give them the compensation so that they could put it in their own 401K or whatever, I think we could do that and do it very painlessly."

Hartgen seemed hopeful that the secretary of state chatter might lead to something good—an actual move to fix this issue in the 2015 legislative session. If so, it will have served a worthy purpose.

The public should know and care about the fact:

- That politicians benefit from the very generous lifetime benefits provided through PERSI.

- That the PERSI system, while one of the best-run pension systems in the country, is still incredibly expensive, and that cost is borne by taxpayers.

- That a good career move—from state legislator to full time administrator or officeholder—can result in a huge uptick in retirement pay.

- That state employee retirement pay isn't just for state employees; union reps at the education labor union and other non-government people get to play in the system too.

Those issues should be front and center, and not just in the secretary of state debate.

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