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Editorial: Government enrichment of workers is bad politics

Never underestimate the creative genius of public agencies when an inconvenient law gets in their way.

Seventeen years ago, the Idaho Legislature passed a law forbidding severance payments to state employees who leave their jobs of their own free will. The inspiration for the measure was a controversial episode in which former Boise Mayor Dirk Kempthorne gave $38,000 of the city’s money to two aides who wanted to work for him in his new role as a U.S. senator.

It was an unpopular tactic among Idahoans who believed people ought to be paid to do their jobs, not to leave them.

Fast forward to the 21st century.

Last year, various Idaho state agencies paid $125,000 into the retirement funds of employees (one person collected more than half of it) who were being induced to retire early. Somebody figured out that paying the pension fund is different enough from paying the employee to circumvent the 1993 ban.

If you’re thinking that retirement itself ought to be inducement enough, you’d be agreeing with Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, who’s outraged that a handful of select state employees are being pampered at taxpayers’ expense, while others have to play it by the rules.

Namely, you do your job, collect your pay and, at the end of a prescribed length of service, you collect a prescribed amount of retirement income.

Yet that apparently wasn’t good enough for Judie Wright, former director of the Idaho Division of Human Resources. The division deposited $72,781 into her pension so she’d retire eight months earlier than planned.

Some state officials have described such maneuvers as money-savers, because they’re offset by salary savings as co-workers take over the departed colleague’s duties. If that makes fiscal sense, it sounds suspiciously like some positions might not be needed in the first place.

More important, in difficult economic times, Idaho can’t afford to fund sweetheart deals for favored employees while other agencies struggle to perform important services with inadequate funding.

The Legislature should act favorably on Pasley-Stuart’s bill – then keep an eye on state agencies to see how they work their way around this one.

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