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Cut lawmakers' benefit?

Axing his colleagues' health-care aid is only fair, legislator says

Dave Clark
Dave Clark

The state legislator who led the fight to cut back retired state employees' health-care benefits is now saying legislators themselves should get no state health-care benefits upon retirement.

Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, says tightening up lawmakers' own health-care retirement benefits is only fair, considering what the Legislature had to do to state workers in the 2005 general session. He'll introduce a bill in the 2006 Legislature to do away with health-care retirement benefits for legislators and governors.

"Sounds like this is Dave Clark's own (legislative) term limits bill," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price.

At 68, Dmitrich said, "I'd seriously have to consider retiring" from the Legislature in order to continue getting health-care benefits in the future.

Clark's HB213, passed last session, changed the formula by which soon-to-retire state employees can convert their unused sick leave into post-retirement health-care premiums paid for by the state.

State retirement board officials say HB213 could cut from 10 years to two years the time in which a longtime employee's health-care premiums would be paid for by the state — the employee having to pay those premiums after his or her sick leave conversion time runs out.

In 1998 the Legislature voted to pay the health-care premiums for retired legislators for the lifetime of the legislator and for the lifetime of his or her spouse. Any minor children of a retired legislator are covered until they reach 18. So that current legislative benefit is even more generous than what had been provided to state employees.

For fiscal year 2004-05, the state paid for 28 retired legislative health-care plans costing $120,231, the Deseret Morning News reported this spring.

The state had to cut future state employee health-care benefits, HB213 supporters said, because rising health-care costs could mean the state would have to pick up more than half a billion dollars in future retirees' health-care benefits, an amount that would "break the taxpayer bank."

HB213 gave state employees a year grace period under the old retirement formula, and it appears that a number of veteran state workers will be retiring — many of them taking early retirement — before January 2006.

Clark says his bill, should it pass, will give the same one-year grace period to legislators — they can leave before January 2007 and get health insurance for life for themselves and their spouses.

"That would be a big financial hit" to have to pick up his own health insurance payments when he finally leaves office, said Dmitrich, who was first elected to the part-time Legislature in 1968.

"For 32 years I didn't take the state health insurance; the coal mine (where he worked as a government affairs director) paid my insurance. So I've saved the state a lot of money on insurance over the years. But I need it now," Dmitrich said.

Dmitrich had part of one lung removed earlier this year, diagnosed with cancer. His medical costs hit $33,000, he said. "As we get older, this insurance is real important."

Said Clark: "From the perspective of my own conscience, morally this is the right thing to do. We need to let the state employees know that we (in the Legislature) are tightening our own belts, too."

Clark said he didn't run for the Legislature expecting or wanting the state to pick up his health care when he retired. "And no other legislator I know did."

In fact, Clark said he didn't even know that the state provided a retirement health-care benefit for legislators until about halfway through the HB213 debate during the 45-day session. "When I found out, I was willing to run a (legislative) repeal as part of HB213. But a UPEA lobbyist said I shouldn't."

The Utah Public Employees Association, which represents around 7,000 of the state's 20,000 full- and part-time workers, has been the strongest critic of HB213 and is now suing the state over the new retirement law.

"I can't believe he (Clark) would do this again," said Audry Wood, executive director of the UPEA. Wood said HB213 was enacted with no actuarial study.

"We don't know if HB213 will even save the state any money. And now (Clark) wants to take away a benefit from hardworking legislators, some of whom have to give up their earning power, their livelihood (at their regular jobs) during the 45-day general session, without a study to see if this will save money? It amazes me," she said.

The legislative benefit is not really a question of saving a lot of taxpayer money, Clark said. Retired legislators' health-care premiums may only cost the state several hundred thousand dollars a year in the future, while retired state workers' benefits would have risen to tens of millions of dollars a year, Clark said.

"It is an ethical question," Clark said. "There is a perception problem. We should repeal" the legislative benefit.