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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Boise

Why Idaho passed its no-severance law…

There's nothing in the record that shows why lawmakers passed legislation in 1993, with only one dissenting vote in either house, to ban severance payments to state employees who leave voluntarily. There was little discussion in committee, where the bill passed near-unanimously. But a look back at news clips from the time provides an answer: That year's legislative session opened just as a big scandal was breaking over new U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne's payment of more than $38,000 in severance bonuses to two top aides who worked for him when he was mayor of Boise, when they left city employment to take higher-paid positions on his Senate staff. The severance bonuses were paid with city funds. The move caused such a fuss that the office of the new senator, on his first day in D.C., was besieged with outraged calls from Idaho, particularly as he had campaigned on a reform platform and decried congressional perks and "midnight pay raises."

Kempthorne initially said it was then-Boise City Council President Sara Baker who had approved the bonuses, but she said she'd done so only at his request. It turned out the city of Boise had had a severance pay policy in effect since 1990 designed to give it a way to get rid of top executives without lawsuits, but it also was being used to pay a minimum of two months' pay to top city officials who left for better jobs. After a week of building outrage, both Kempthorne aides paid the money back to the city, and the City Council revoked the policy. In that year's legislative session, two pieces of legislation were introduced to ban severance payments, one for state employees who leave voluntarily, the other for city or county employees. The city and county bill died on the Senate floor, but the state one passed both houses overwhelmingly, was signed into law by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus and took effect on July 1. Then-Sen. John Peavey, D-Carey, sponsor of the successful bill, said, "It kinda takes a jolt to get something done in the Legislature with that kind of support. Obviously everybody was of a single mind over there."

He added, "Y'know, there's that old barn-door story, it's all well and good to close the door after the horses are gone. In this case, we had a warning, so we busily went around and shut doors before anything else happened."

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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