Year in and year out, Idaho lawmakers’ inaction keeps in place wasteful practices that funnel tax dollars to special interest groups.
Especially egregious, as an Associated Press report publicized, 20 states provide public pensions to private-sector individuals who work as union officials, lawyers, trade association executives, and athletic event sponsors. The Gem State is one of them.
Private-sector employers in the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho include the Idaho Education Association (union), the Idaho Public Employees Association (union), the Idaho Association of Cities, Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho High School Activity Association, and Idaho Association of Counties (see full list of employers in the Idaho here). All of these promote private interests, not the public’s.
In 2011, state House Commerce and Human Resources Chairmen Stephen Hartgen first tried to end the practice of private interest groups collecting publicly funded pensions. But his bill couldn’t even get a committee hearing, let alone a vote.
In recent comments to the Idaho Reporter, Rep. Hartgen will not introduce the bill again and said, “I’ve given it two shots previously and was unable to gain any traction in the House.”
But that is not all. Another annual taxpayer expense that subsidizes private activity, at no benefit to the public, is the practice known as union release time. This involves government employees getting paid their regular salary to perform union work. This is nearly identical giving public pension benefits to private sector lobbyists in that neither compensates the state in return for its aid.
In Idaho, numerous school districts agree to provisions in collective bargaining agreements that release public employees from their civic duties to conduct union business while still collecting their government pay.
For example, the 2013-2014 collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the Boise School District and Boise Education Association agreed to the release time provision:
“The Association president shall be allowed a leave of absence for his/her term of office with salary and benefits to be paid by the Association for the time that the president is released from teaching duties. The District shall reimburse the Association the cost of salary and benefits of a first year teacher (B.A., 1.0 experience).”
In the 2013-2014 CBA, the Lake Pend Oreille Education Association negotiated release time for the union president:
“The Association President or his/her designee shall be released to no less than one-fifth (1/5) of his/her total contract hours per year for Association Business and to collaborate with District administration. Such release time shall be in addition to those days authorized by Idaho Code. The District shall absorb any costs associated with the President’s release time.”
Like Rep. Hartgen’s reform measure against private individuals collecting public pensions, a 2011 bill to eliminate union release time for teachers failed to become enacted.
So while Idaho lawmakers may not have the stomach to take on special interests and end this irresponsible spending; they are in luck because there is an alternative.
Idaho’s Constitution contains a provision known as the “Gift Clause,” which prohibits the state from expending public funds that aid private entities. Idaho constitution Article VIII Section 2 states, “The credit of the state shall not, in any manner, be given, or loaned to, or in aid of any individual, associate”on, municipality or corporation; nor shall the state directly or indirectly, become a stockholder in any association or corporation.”
The Idaho Supreme Court has interpreted the Gift Clause to require public funds only be expended for public purposes. This judicial precedent is known as the “public purpose” doctrine.
In Idaho Water Resource Board v. Kramer, the Idaho Supreme Court explains that a “public purpose is an activity that serves to benefit the community as a whole and which is directly related to the function of government.”
In a comparable case related to giving private lobbyists public pensions and union release time, is a 1995 Idaho Attorney General opinion. The question presented to the Idaho AG: may the State of Idaho loan government employees with pay for eight weeks to the United Way to help with a fundraising campaign?
The Attorney General conclusion stated, “Loaning public employees to the United Way for eight (8) weeks while continuing to pay their salaries and benefits from state funds violates the public purpose doctrine.”
Clearly, giving public pensions to private lobbyists and union release time do not constitute public purposes. Not only is there no public purpose involved, but the gifts are going to people who are working for their own interests with no benefit to the state or to the taxpayer. These gift bans were intended to protect taxpayer interests by ensuring that government expenditures further public purposes and provide tangible benefits to states or municipalities, not simply hand out favors to special interests.
Now it is time for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to use Idaho’s Constitution to end public expenditures related to union release time and private lobbyists participating in the state’s public pension system.