BOISE – Gov. Butch Otter’s decision to turn down a scheduled 3 percent pay raise this year has run into an unexpected roadblock: An Idaho attorney general’s opinion that concludes he can’t do it.
The state constitution requires the Legislature to set the pay amounts for officials including the governor and to do it before they take office. Their pay can’t be changed during their terms. So a law passed before Otter took office mandating that his $108,727 salary rise by 3 percent in 2009, to $111,989, is the law – and Otter has no power to change it.
“The governor was disappointed,” said his budget director, Wayne Hammon. “We’re bound to do it, so he’s going to take the money and then donate it to the scholarship fund.”
Hammon said Otter will donate his raise to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship fund or to the Governor’s Cup Scholarship Fund. Both are for Idaho students attending Idaho colleges. “Secondly, he’s going to propose during this legislative session a constitutional amendment to change that law,” Hammon said.
The governor favors allowing the state Board of Examiners, which consists of the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state, to opt out of previously approved raises for all state constitutional officers.
The Legislature has such opt-out authority for its own raises, which are recommended by a citizens commission and take effect unless lawmakers block them. This year, the commission is recommending 5 percent raises, but lawmakers in both parties say they’ll reject them because of the state’s worsening budget picture and the likelihood that lawmakers won’t fund raises for state employees next year.
Two other state elected officials, former Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, also had planned to reject their raises this year but now legally can’t. Idaho’s other statewide elected officials hadn’t objected to their scheduled raises this year.
Luna said he hopes the Legislature will change the system, though a constitutional amendment also would need a vote of the people to take effect.
“I think when we’re looking at the toughest economic times that we’ve seen in our lifetime, that this is not the time for politicians to be getting a pay increase,” Luna said.
In the attorney general’s opinion, Deputy Attorney General Bill von Tagen wrote, “the Constitution specifically prohibits the Legislature, during the term of the elected official, from ‘zeroing out’ an increase that has been enacted properly before that term began. This process insures that the salary of an officer is not increased or diminished in the officer’s term. … The restriction within the Constitution was intended to prevent the salaries of officers from becoming political bargaining chips. Additionally, the office survives whoever holds it. Therefore, a subsequent holder of the office should not be hindered by the political maneuvers of the current holder of the office.”
State Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, requested the attorney general’s opinion to address options for the Legislature when addressing pay issues this year.
“When economic times are tough, I was just thinking elected officials shouldn’t be held to a different standard than anyone else,” Bolz said. “If you’re asking that all these people who work for the state be held to no pay raise, why should we be any different?”
Bolz said he was mainly focused on legislative pay and was surprised to learn statewide elected officials couldn’t reject raises.
“It’s kind of a unique situation, but that’s what the Constitution says,” he said.