The rocky relationship between ethics and Idaho’s legislative leaders is on display again, and this time an actual dollar figure can be affixed.
Thanks to his scuttling of a pension reform bill, former House Speaker Lawerence Denney could gain a monthly retirement check that’s seven times greater than the one he would receive as a retired legislator if his campaign for secretary of state is successful. If he loses, he’ll collect a monthly check of about $500, based on nine terms in the House. If he wins and serves a mere four years, the monthly payout balloons to more than $3,600.
This is a deal created by lawmakers that benefits lawmakers. If the eventual winner of the secretary of state race has no legislative experience, he or she could collect only $663 a month after four years. The pension calculation is based on the highest-paid 42 months of state employment. The secretary of state earns $99,450 a year; a legislator, working only part time, gets $16,438. But there’s a provision of the law that also factors in years of legislative service. When that’s combined with the highest-paid 42 months, the pension benefit multiplies considerably.
It didn’t used to be this way. When he was a state senator in the 1980s, former Gov. Phil Batt passed legislation that ended this pension spike, and from 1985 to 1990 that was the law. But when Batt left, he apparently took the Legislature’s conscience with him, because lawmakers from both parties spearheaded a change that exempts them, though it still applies to other public officials.
Last year, former state Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, sponsored a bill to lift the exemption for legislators. Denney directed a committee chairman to smother the measure, and so it died.
Lake told The Spokesman-Review, “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.”
Denney defends his action, saying the matter should be decided by a citizens salary commission. But that panel’s chairwoman, Boise attorney Debora Kristensen, disagrees, noting that its task is to set salaries for legislators, not determine pension benefits that include service in other positions. Besides, she said, the commission was never contacted to look into the matter.
Denney says killing the bill was not related to his eventual run for higher office, but if legislative leaders had a healthy respect for ethics this appearance of impropriety wouldn’t exist. Legislative leaders, including Denney, have warded off multiple attempts to establish an independent ethics commission.
A number of former legislators have already benefited from this peculiar pension perk, but the gravy train needs to stop. The solution is to run another bill that would end this practice. At least then, supporters would have to explain why they deserve special consideration.