Boise, Idaho — Rep. Dennis Lake advanced his all-out push Tuesday to trim retirement benefits for Idaho elected officials, telling lawmakers they should dump an "unconscionable" law he says allows former legislators to pad their pensions.
It's among two measures being touted by the Blackfoot Republican to overhaul legislators' pensions that are working through the House. Lake is also leading separate talks over how to close a gap in a retirement system for state judges that's now underfunded by $14 million.
Lake, testifying before the House State Affairs Committee, urged lawmakers to end a pension perk that lets lawmakers "spike" their benefits by taking a higher-paid state appointment for 42 months at the end of their careers.
Lawmakers approved this special benefit for themselves during the 1990 session, but Lake contends it's long outlived its appropriateness.
"It's unconscionable to allow this practice to continue," Lake said. "We're just going back to being treated the same way as other elected officials."
Under current law, legislators who serve 14 years in the Idaho House or Senate before retiring are eligible for a monthly benefit of $350 when they turn 65, based on the $16,000 annual salary they receive as a member of the legislature.
By contrast, Lake says, someone who serves 10 years before taking a state appointment, which would pay $80,000 annually, for the next 3 ½ years would collect a retirement benefit of $1,800 per month.
Under his measure, the benefits would be based on a blend of the salaries.
Lawmakers have long parlayed legislative experience into public service jobs beyond the Statehouse, including former Nampa Republican Rep. Bill Deal, who was appointed in 2007 as director of the Idaho Department of Insurance, and former Boise Democrat Sen. David Langhorst, now one of Idaho's four tax commissioners.
In 1990, then-state Sen. Mike Crapo, now a U.S. senator, introduced the perk to add to lawmakers' incentives package.
At the time, supporters said the changes would allow lawmakers to retire with benefits based on their highest salary, according to a copy of committee testimony from that year reviewed by The Associated Press. The 1990 Senate approved the measure 38-3, while the House backed the bill 52-28.
But times have changed, and lawmakers from both parties now say there's unlikely to be much opposition to turning back the clock — especially in an environment where nobody wants to be seen carving out special privileges for themselves.
"As a concept, it's difficult to oppose," said Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise.
Another of Lake's measures working through the House aims to close a loophole that allows lawmakers who live near Boise to accumulate retirement benefits at a rate that's about 25 percent faster than those lawmakers from farther away.
It unanimously cleared the House Commerce Committee on Tuesday and now heads to a vote of the full chamber.
Separately, Lake also is pursuing a deal to shore up a retirement fund for judges that's fallen progressively further behind on meeting its obligations, in part as a result of generous benefit payments to retirees from the judiciary.
Judges' benefits are roughly double those of regular state employees, and the fund currently needs $1.3 million annually in additional funding to cover payouts over 25 years, if nothing is changed.
Sitting judges are naturally reluctant to reduce benefits for those who join the bench in the future, for fear of undermining one of their recruitment tools. Without a robust package, they say, it'll be tougher to lure highly paid, qualified attorneys from private practice to the bench.
Meanwhile, Lake insists judges give ground, in order to bolster the long-term solvency of their retirement fund.
Courts administrator Patti Tobias said Tuesday a letter has been sent to the governor, legislative leaders and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick outlining terms of an agreement. Draft legislation could be ready Friday that would increase judges' payments and hike court fees, while reducing some benefits.
"It's fair to say, nobody walked away 100 percent satisfied," Lake said. "Everybody had to give a little bit."