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Eye On Boise

Lawmakers unlikely to repeal retirement perk, set for pay raises…

It’s looking unlikely that Idaho lawmakers will move this year to do away with a special retirement perk for certain legislators – even though a citizens commission this year called for lawmakers to reconsider the perk; you can read my full story here at Meanwhile, unless they reject them, Idaho lawmakers are due for 2 percent raises next year and another 2 percent the following year.

House Speaker Scott Bedke said Wednesday that in his view, the Idaho Constitution forbids lawmakers from taking any action on anything having to do with their compensation; that’s why a special Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation sets legislative pay raises every two years, and they take effect unless lawmakers reject them. “I think that is in their wheelhouse, and not ours,” Bedke said.

That’s the committee that voted in June of this year to “strongly recommend that the Legislature reconsider changes to the calculation of legislative retirement benefits proposed under 2015 House Bill 100.” That bill, which passed the House but never got a hearing in the Senate, would have repealed the legislative perk.

The provision only affects longtime legislators who, late in their careers, do brief stints in high-paying state jobs. Then, all their years of legislative service – which now pays just over $16,000 a year – are counted as if they were served in the higher-paying job, sharply inflating the official’s retirement pension. A recent example is former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, now Idaho’s secretary of state; if he serves just one four-year term in the higher-paid job, his lifetime state pension will balloon from the roughly $500 a month he was due as a nine-term state lawmaker to more than $3,600 a month.

Rep. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, who co-sponsored the 2015 bill, said Wednesday that she’s not inclined to re-introduce it unless legislative leaders in both the House and Senate support passing the bill through both houses.

Packer said the perk may or may not be justified, but her concern is that lawmakers created it for themselves – and not for any other elected officials. “We receive special treatment,” she said. “I don’t think people that are making policy should ever carve out something for ourselves as a group.”

Oddly, that’s similar to Bedke’s argument against repealing the perk. “My position is that the Constitution is clear that that’s not our job,” he said. “I’ll take a look at it, but that’s where I’m at.”

The perk has been granted and repealed several times over the years. Then-Sen. Phil Batt, later Idaho’s governor, led a move to repeal the special exemption for lawmakers in 1985, but then-Sen. Jim Risch, now a U.S. senator, led a move to restore it in 1990. Removing the special exemption would treat legislators like any other part-time elected official, like a mayor or city councilor, who later gets a full-time state job; a sliding scale would calculate the part-time and full-time service separately for purposes of calculating that official’s state pension.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “I’m not going to make a commitment. I wish the citizens commission would have made a recommendation of where they thought that we should go on it – it is part of the compensation package. … They didn’t. They just said, hey, we strongly recommend you look at it.”

Hill said if the bill were to pass the House again, it might get a hearing in the Senate. Two years ago, then-Senate State Affairs Committee Chairman Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, declined to set a hearing for it, killing the bill. Hill said he sent it to McKenzie’s committee that year because another panel that could have heard the bill was chaired by then-Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, and Hill knew that Tippets was up for a state appointment, creating a potential conflict of interest. Tippets is now the director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

McKenzie stepped down from the Senate this year to make an unsuccessful run for the Idaho Supreme Court.

Hill said, “I don’t think it’s inappropriate for the Legislature to deal with it.”

Some lawmakers who opposed the bill in 2015 argued that although Idaho’s legislative session typically lasts only three months, legislators really are full-time, rather than part-time, because they have some duties outside the session.

In 2012, then-Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, introduced legislation to do away with the perk, but Denney, then speaker of the House, unilaterally killed the bill.

The citizens commission also recommended this year that Idaho legislators get 2 percent pay raises next year, and another 2 percent the following year. That would bump legislative base pay up from the current $16,684 a year to $17,017 in 2017 and $17,358 in 2018.

Idaho legislators got 1.5 percent raises last year and the year before, and a 2 percent raise in 2013-14. The citizens committee recommended a 5 percent raise in 2009, but lawmakers rejected it, as the state was hit hard by the recession and made big budget cuts.

Last year, lawmakers granted state employees merit raises averaging 3 percent.

Both Hill and Bedke said they haven’t heard of any push to reject the proposed 2 percent raises for lawmakers for 2017 and 2018. “I’d assume it will take effect,” Bedke said.

Packer said, “I don’t see anybody that’s gotten rich out of being a member of the Legislature.”

Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, said, “I don’t care – we’re not here for the money.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Idaho’s legislative pay falls well below the national median of $21,000 a year; the highest base salary for state lawmakers is $100,113 in California, while the lowest is zero in New Mexico.

Bedke said, “We should always keep up a little bit.” He said the chance to serve in the Legislature shouldn’t be available only to the independently wealthy or the retired. “It needs to be available to all citizens.”

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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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