BOISE - When voters elected longtime Idaho lawmaker Lawerence Denney as Secretary of State two years ago, his state pension as a legislator was worth roughly $500 a month. If he serves one four-year term in the higher-paying elected position, his pension will be roughly $3,600 a month, for life.
That’s because a 1990 Idaho law treats years of legislative service the same as full-time state employment for purposes of pension calculations.
Now, two Idaho citizens – a retired math teacher and a CPA – are urging a state panel to end that practice. The Idaho Citizens Commission on Legislative Compensation voted unanimously on Wednesday to ask the Legislature to revisit the issue.
“The impropriety of that legislation has been discussed many times in the past,” Jim Haddock told the panel. Haddock, who taught math at Potlatch High School for 37 years, joined his brother Tom, a former legislative auditor, in the presentation before the citizens commission.
Idaho’s House of Representatives passed a bill in 2015 that would have removed the exemption for the Legislature, but it died without a hearing in a Senate committee. An Idaho Attorney General’s opinion suggested the citizens panel might need to weigh in on such a change.
The citizens commission, created by a 1976 constitutional amendment, is the only entity that can set pay for state legislators – they can’t do it themselves. The six-member commission, appointed by the governor and the Idaho Supreme Court, sets legislative compensation every two years. Lawmakers can reject a raise and keep previous pay rates in effect, which happened just twice, in 1982 and 2010.
Haddock told the panel that when lawmakers passed the pension-boost law in 1990, it “caused a terrific increase in compensation for some members, which is questionable under the Constitution.”
William “Bud” Yost, a Nampa attorney and commission member, said there’s not enough money involved to impact the state retirement fund overall.
But Reed Larsen, an attorney from Pocatello and a commission member, said the law isn’t fair to other state workers.
“This is a perk or benefit legislators have,” he said.
He compared the provision to “insider trading,” and said longtime state legislators are most likely to know about high-paying state positions and have the connections to land the posts. “They know those benefits are there, they know how to take advantage of the system,” Larsen said. “It just smells to me.”
Commission member Eva Gay Yost said she believes the issue is that state legislators are full-time, not part-time employees, though the legislative session usually runs just three months a year. Lawmakers are always on call to neighbors and constituents who approach them with problems, from the grocery store to a knock on the door, she said.
Former state Sen. John Goedde, of Coeur d’Alene, said the full-time vs. part-time question varies from person to person. “There are legislators that work a minuscule amount of time off-session, and are there for what they are required to be during the session. And there are legislators that devote their lives to being legislators,” meeting with constituents, serving on national committees and in leadership posts and more, he said.
Debora Kristensen, chairwoman of the commission, said she doesn’t think the citizens commission is the right body to decide whether legislator is a full-time or part-time job.
Deputy Attorney General Michael Gilmore advised that both the citizens commission and the Legislature need to act if they want to change the current situation, given the constitutional questions surrounding legislative pay.
“Until a court tells us otherwise, this should be considered a shared responsibility,” he said.
Goedde made the motion to leave retirement benefits unchanged for now, but to “strongly suggest that the Legislature revisit those issues.”
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