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Senate-House relations take hit over PERSI bills

BOISE – There are 33,000 Idaho retirees who draw their pensions from the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, all longtime state, local government or school employees, and all, presumably, motivated voters in this election year when every seat in the Legislature is up for a vote.

So what prompted House Republicans to wage a bare-fisted but losing battle to deny those retirees a 1 percent cost-of-living increase next month?

First off, the lead sponsor, Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said it was “strictly a matter of equity.” With active state employees facing furloughs and other cuts, he said, it didn’t seem the right time to give retirees a pay increase – even though the PERSI board said it wouldn’t cost the state general fund anything, and wouldn’t affect plans either way for a 1.5 percent contribution rate increase in a year and a half.

The House State Affairs Committee rejected that argument, killing the bill, HCR 42, on a 13-5 vote after an extensive public hearing.

That’s when things got weird. The next day, with no notice at all, the same committee brought the bill up again and passed it on a straight party-line vote, 12-4, over vociferous protest from committee Democrats who called the move an “ambush.” Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said a former state senator and GOP activist, Rod Beck, gave him an actuarial report that showed that the PERSI fund is actually in trouble. He said Beck found the report on the Internet.

Then Beck contacted Eye on Boise, to say he didn’t just find the fiscal year 2009 PERSI actuarial report on the Internet while cruising Web sites; he got it in an e-mail from Wayne Hoffman, head of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, who obtained it through a request to PERSI. “I just was not digging through actuarial reports – I’m not that weird,” Beck said.

Hoffman published an “Idaho Pork Report” at the start of the legislative session that decried PERSI retirement benefits as unduly generous, and called for cutting them.

While all this was happening, the Pew Center on the States published a national report that declared PERSI one of the soundest state retirement systems in the nation, and PERSI officials noted that since the period covered by the fiscal 2009 actuarial report, the fund had gained more than $1.3 billion thanks to improvements in the markets.

Longtime former Boise city police officer, GOP Ada County commissioner and Boise city councilman Vern Bisterfeldt summed up retirees’ reactions when he said, “I’m so mad I could just spit.” Bisterfeldt said the COLA would mean “30 bucks for me a month. What’s that going to do for the state? And it’s not their money to start with.”

It got a little weirder after that, when the House the very next day suspended its rules and rammed the measure through on a 48-19 vote. This time, it wasn’t straight party-line – two Republicans, Reps. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, and Tom Trail, R-Moscow, voted against the bill, joining Democrats; and one Democrat, Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, voted in favor of it, joining Republicans. Boe then unsuccessfully tried a parliamentary maneuver to force reconsideration of the bill: Since she’d voted on the prevailing side, she served notice of reconsideration. She was foiled only because it was after the session’s 35th day, meaning such motions can be taken up only the same day, and the House adjourned after her notice.

The reason for the big rush: Lawmakers couldn’t block the PERSI COLA unless the measure passed both houses by the 45th day of the session, which was this past Wednesday. As of the House vote that Friday, they had just three working days to spare.

The Senate then assigned the bill to the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee, the committee that normally handles state employee issues. That panel in the House had been bypassed in favor of the State Affairs Committee; the commerce committees generally are more sympathetic to state employees.

Senate Committee Chairman John Andreason, R-Boise, scheduled a hearing for this past Tuesday, and booked the state Capitol’s largest auditorium, which seats more than 200. On Monday, retirees gathered for a press conference on the Statehouse steps to decry the bill as mean-spirited and disrespectful, and to accuse lawmakers of tampering with the pensions for which they’d worked all their lives.

Then, on Tuesday morning, hours before the scheduled hearing, Andreason and Senate GOP leaders announced that the hearing was canceled and the bill was dead. Andreason, a former longtime state employee himself, said he’d received “a very large number of e-mails and telephone calls,” and all were against HCR 42.

So what did all that accomplish? There are angry retirees now watching the Legislature like hawks. There are House Republicans still mad over the Senate move, and still decrying the prospects for the PERSI fund. Minority Democrats in the House are crying foul. And Senate-House relations suffered a big blow, just as delicate negotiations over big budget cuts – including unprecedented cuts to schools – are reaching their climax.

Long-lost doorknob returns

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, found a box on his desk, and in it was one of the original missing antique heavy brass doorknobs from the state Capitol, with the state seal and the saying “Esto Perpetua” deeply engraved into its surface, along with a note. Stegner has been leading lots of tours of the renovated state Capitol, and he often mentions that many of the original doorknobs have disappeared for souvenirs – possibly for former legislators – over the past 90 years. The note said a tour participant knew someone who had one, and talked that person into returning it to the state. “I intend to get it on a door,” Stegner said.

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