BOISE – Former Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney, whose pension benefits would soar by more than 600 percent if he wins his bid for secretary of state, personally killed legislation last year that would have ended the costly special treatment for longtime legislators who land high-paying government jobs at the end of their careers.
“He’s the one that made sure the bill died,” said former state Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, the bill’s sponsor.
Idaho legislators, who are currently paid $16,438 a year, qualify for only modest pension benefits under the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, or PERSI, because of their low salaries. Based on his nine terms in the state House, Denney, 65, would get about $500 a month. But a quirk in the law would boost Denney’s monthly pension benefit to more than $3,600 if he were to go on to serve one four-year term as secretary of state.
PERSI sets retirement pensions based on the highest-paid 42 months of state employment. The current salary for the Idaho secretary of state is $99,450 a year.
Denney acknowledged that he directed a committee chairman to scuttle Lake’s bill in 2012. “We have a citizens commission that sets legislative compensation,” he said. “And they are the ones that should be dealing with all of that, in my opinion. … That was passed to take the politics out of it, and if we get involved, we’re putting the politics back into it.”
However, the chair of that citizens commission, Boise attorney Debora Kristensen, said the commission never was asked to look at the issue – and she doesn’t think it’s within their purview.
“I thought our entire charge … was to set their compensation for their service in the Legislature,” Kristensen said Friday. “And it sounds like this issue goes beyond that.”
Former state Sen. Don Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, another member of the citizens commission, said: “That could be changed if the Legislature thought it was out of line. Somebody could just carry a bill through there and it’d get discussed and everything. I think that’d probably be the way to handle it.”
When the commission met after the 2012 legislative session, Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, attended the meeting, but Denney didn’t.
Denney said his move to kill the bill in 2012 was “absolutely not” related to his plans to move up to a higher state office, though he was rumored to be in the running for state posts at the time.
“I don’t think any of us run for the retirement, you know,” he told The Spokesman-Review. “I think there are certainly other reasons, and I think that’s just part of the compensation. And if you’re fortunate enough to be elected to another office, I think that’s part of it.”
Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, when he was a state senator in 1985, pushed through legislation to make sure elected or appointed officials couldn’t benefit from such spikes in their retirement after long service in low-paid state roles. But in 1990, after Batt was out of the Legislature, lawmakers exempted themselves from Batt’s change, which still limits all other elected or appointed officials. The 1990 bill had bipartisan backing and was pushed by both the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate at the time.
In 2002, three of the major-party candidates for statewide office in Idaho stood to benefit from the perk, as longtime lawmakers running for higher-paid, year-round jobs. One of the three, former state Controller Donna Jones, won her race.
Batt said then, “Once I got out, they reinstated it. I don’t think they should be entitled to full-time benefits for legislative service.” But he added, “Now, I’m kind of a poor one to talk about it, because I benefited from that system. But I tried to correct it.”
Lake’s 2012 bill would have grandfathered in officials already receiving the higher pensions but cut off the perk in the future. He worked on an identical bill in 2011 with House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, but it went nowhere.
Roberts, who was appointed to the state Tax Commission in 2012, is now among those benefiting from the perk. After his 12 years in the Legislature, his PERSI benefit added up to less than $350 a month. But once he completes a six-year term on the Tax Commission at $87,156 a year, that pension would jump to $2,615 a month.
Roberts didn’t return calls Friday seeking comment.
If a candidate were elected to the secretary of state post Denney’s seeking with no prior state service, legislative or otherwise, at the end of a four-year term he or she would qualify for a PERSI pension of $663 a month.
Lake, who retired from the Legislature after the 2012 session and was busy purchasing calves near his eastern Idaho home on Friday, said he still thinks Idaho should eliminate the pension perk for former lawmakers. With the calves mooing loudly in the background, he said, “It’s absolutely wrong for a legislator to be able to accumulate time as a legislator, and then collect their pension as a high-paid executive. That’s wrong.”