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Tuesday, April 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Boise

House reconsiders bill to end pension-spiking, then after tense debate, passes it again with similar margin

That was really, really weird. The House, on a motion from GOP Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, reconsidered the 38-32 vote this morning by which it passed HB 100, the bill to do away with a special retirement perk that sharply boosts the pensions of longtime lawmakers who, late in their careers, do brief stints in high-paying state jobs, by counting all their years of legislative service as if they were served in the higher-paying job. The vote to reconsider was 41-26, reopening debate. Vander Woude argued that the bill’s unconstitutional, because lawmakers can’t vote to set their own compensation, and there was a better way: “I believe the quicker and cleaner solution is to change PERSI," to move from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan.

That was a bit of a shocker, and drew immediate negative debate from Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, who co-chaired the joint change in employee compensation committee this year. He noted that the structure of the state’s retirement system is “a major question affecting the compensation we offer 25,000 people in the state of Idaho,” while HB 100 is “a very small thing affecting a few people, not a change to our entire plan that affects 25,000 people. To couple those two makes no sense to me.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, left the chair to argue in favor of rejecting the previously passed bill. “I think that we’re on the verge of making a mistake here today,” he told the House. He read from the Idaho Constitution, saying “The legislature shall have no authority to establish the rate of its compensation.”

But Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, an attorney, read from an Idaho Attorney General’s opinion that found the bill is within the Legislature’s authority. “The attorney general does not think that our acting here today is a violation of the Constitution,” she said. “We enacted this special goody for legislators, we put into code this special provision that legislators can retire at a higher payout than anybody else. That line was crossed and all this bill does is undo that.” She said that would help restore the eroding trust in government. “I think we should strip out those special goodies that cause legislators and only legislators to retire at a higher rate than anyone else,” she said.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, also an attorney, argued that it’s a “vested compensation issue,” and said, “This bill is changing that retroactively because it says that if you retire after July 1, 2015 you get a different retirement package than had you retired the day before.” And Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, argued, “We are really full-time employees, and I would challenge anyone in this body to tell me that I don’t serve full-time as a legislator. … Some of us in these larger districts, we will spend a great deal of time just traveling getting to meetings. … Try driving a 300 mile long distance sometime and tell me that you’re not working.”

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said when the perk for lawmakers first was enacted, “It seemed to be constitutional then. It’s no secret that lots of legislators are appointed to positions to live out their final days … so they can bump up their PERSI and retire pretty cushy. So there’s possibly some in this body that this would affect in a few years when they get to retirement age. Special rights for legislators is unconscionable. We’re supposed to be here looking out for the people and not for ourselves and our best interests and what’s going to happen when we retire, and I believe HB 100 should be passed.”

After all that, the final vote on the reconsidered bill was 39-28 with three absent – almost identical to the original vote this morning to pass it. The bill now moves to the Senate side.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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