Rerouting of pension bill won’t fly with Idaho taxpayers

Last legislative session, a bill suddenly disappeared from radar, and only now do we know why: It had the potential to impact the retirements of people serving in the state Senate.

The bill in question is the one that would have stopped legislators from padding their pensions by taking a state government job. After passing the House, the bill was expected to land in the Senate Commerce and Human Resources Committee, where it was promised a hearing. Instead, it meandered to a different committee and died without a vote.

Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill of Rexburg explained that he rerouted the measure because the Senate Commerce Committee chairman, John Tippets, was quietly being considered by Gov. Butch Otter for an appointment to head the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

“I had heard rumors that the governor was considering him as a possibility,” Hill told IdahoReporter.com. “Now that the governor has made his announcement regarding the appointment of Sen. Tippets, you can see why it would have been unwise to refer the bill to his committee.”

Otter announced that Tippets will run the DEQ starting July 6. The Republican, from Bennington in eastern Idaho, need only stay on the job for 42 months in order to cash out with a retirement larger than many Idaho families earn in a year. His nearly $6,000 annual pension will rise to more than $44,200 per year, thanks to a special carve-out that applies only to state legislators.

I’d bet Hill is sincere in his reasoning to detour a bill that could have direct implications for Tippets. It’s also worth noting that Republican Sen. Dean Cameron, another member of the Senate Commerce Committee, also recently landed a job at the Department of Insurance.

Still, it all feels just a little icky. This is Otter’s fourth appointment this year of state senators to high-paying state government jobs. And earlier this year, a bill that would have stopped Tippets and Cameron and other ex-legislators from getting a pension payoff from the executive branch quietly went away, buried in a drawer belonging to the Senate State Affairs chairman, Curt McKenzie, of Nampa.

Hill says he didn’t give any direction to McKenzie to either hear or not hear the bill. For his part, McKenzie told IdahoReporter.com that he believes only a citizens’ commission that sets legislative compensation can affect a change to legislative retirement. “I just think it should come through that commission,” McKenzie said.

There’s sizeable debate about whether McKenzie’s view is correct. Nonetheless, McKenzie made the bill go away by unilaterally shelving it, when he could have held a hearing and allowed the question some air.

Hill wants the public to view the unfortunate demise of the pension payoff bill this way: Tippets and Cameron were prevented from being faced with an awkward conflict of interest that they weren’t able to publicly articulate: They were rumored to be in line for state jobs.

But to others, it now looks as though members of the Senate orchestrated the demise of a bill that would have ended the very lucrative taxpayer-supported nest eggs their now-former colleagues will receive.

Both versions probably bear some truth. The latter is just damaging enough of a narrative to really make taxpayers very angry.

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