A lobbyist on the public dole always smells funny.
It’s a natural plot-line for a Hollywood B-movie script where lawmakers bow to the whims of their paymasters.
So we turned up our noses upon hearing that the employees of a number of lobbying organizations are enrolled in the Idaho Public Employees Retirement System. The news broke this month that lobbying organizations — often teachers’ unions and groups that advocate for local government — are enrolled in the pension systems of more than two-dozen states, including Idaho.
PERSI, the state’s $13.3 billion retirement fund, guarantees the retirement of employees for a half-dozen non-governmental, advocacy organizations. High-paid jobs at the Association of Idaho Cities, Idaho Association of Counties and the Idaho Public Employees Association come with the cushy benefit of a taxpayer-subsidized state pension.
These same people are tasked with swaying lawmakers so their constituent groups get special treatment from Boise. They fund campaigns and expect favors in return. Meanwhile, the regular Idahoans — some of the lowest-paid people in the country — fund their retirement.
It’s wrong, and it needs to be changed.
The rank-and-file citizenry, many of whom struggle to fund less generous private sector IRAs, are bolstering the retirement benefits of executives.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said he was “surprised” to learn that lobbyists were enrolled in PERSI. But Otter added that fixing the problem, which has gone on for 40 years, is tricky because the sophists in the public system have paid into the account.
That doesn’t change the fact that the taxpayers are also funding the state’s share of lobbyists’ retirement, advocates who, in some cases, work in direct conflict with the best interest of Idaho’s citizens.
Their numbers aren’t many, according to PERSI Executive Director Don Drum. Maybe a few dozen, many of whom are executive directors and presidents, take part in the benefit. That’s a pittance when pooled with the 131,000 highway workers, teachers and clerks in the program.
But that doesn’t lessen the bad odor wafting from the cesspool of political gifts for the well connected.
Drum said these organizations were allowed in PERSI in the 1970s, before the Internal Revenue Service tightened its rules. An advocacy group last year applied for enrollment in PERSI, arguing that its mission is similar to other lobbying groups in the program, but Drum said he denied its entry.
“We told them to go to the Legislature,” he said. “I personally think we need to be very protective of who participates in this fund.”
Drum is spot on.
The Legislature must take up this issue when it convenes in January. Maybe Otter is right, and the lobbyists already enrolled can’t be booted from the system. Maybe they can. But either way, the Legislature must act to ban any more lobbyist enrollments. Perhaps grandfathering in those already enrolled is necessary, but barring any new beneficiaries from these groups is the right thing to do.
People already don’t trust their government. The populace assumes that their voice doesn’t count for much when pitted against moneyed interests.
And with lobbyists on the public dole, those people might have a point.