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Remove the veil of secrecy from public pension system

Sunday, June 27, 2010

To understand why public em- ployees in Ohio don’t want you, the private sector taxpayers, to know how much they’re receiving or will receive in retirement payments, consider these eye-popping facts: Last year, about 1,100 State Teachers Retirement System members received on average $67,000 in pension pay while returning to work and earning $70,000 to $100,000 in their post-retirement jobs at school districts; about 32,000 state and local employees collected more than $1 billion in pension payouts last year in addition to the money they’re earning as double-dippers; the pension cost to local governments in the state is $4.1 billion a year, and the number will grow by $604 million to $768 million over the next five years.

Who are the beneficiaries of this largess? State law prohibits Ohio’s five public pension systems from disclosing pertinent details about individual retirees. How much did the worker contribute toward his or her pension and how much did the taxpayers shell out? It’s a secret. How many years did a public employee work before being able to draw a pension? It’s a secret. Indeed, who is getting the pension benefit? That, too, is secret.

In Ohio, nearly 400,000 public retirees receive benefits from the five systems, and Ohioans now pay more than $4 billion a year toward those benefits. To be sure, public employees also contribute, but it’s the non-public taxpayers’ dollars that are prompting complaints about the secrecy.

If we’re paying toward public employees’ pensions, we have a right to know everything about their benefits. Pension records of public employees should not be shrouded from public view.

On Jan. 3, the Ohio Newspaper Organization made up of eight papers, including The Vindicator, reported the results of a statewide survey of Ohio’s pension funds in several news stories. That package was followed last Sunday by stories about the widely used “retire, rehire” provision in the law that has enabled thousands of public employees to work in public positions and collect pensions at the same time.

Common thread

The entire investigative package had a common thread running through it: A significant number of public employees in the state of Ohio are looking forward to annual pensions higher than what most working Ohioans earn and full medical coverage.

But here’s a reality check for the hundreds of thousands of current and prospective pensioners who are worried about the financial stability of the pension plans: The taxpayers of Ohio will not agree to $325 million more in public dollars being used to shore up the various systems.

State legislators who also are eligible for public pensions should quickly disabuse themselves of the notion that public employees have a right to expect their retirement benefits to be guaranteed when Social Security, which most taxpayers depend on, faces insolvency.

If Ohio’s five pension funds are facing future challenges, let the beneficiaries pay to ensure stability.

As for lifting the veil of secrecy, the lobbying power of public employees and the legislators’ own self interest make that a long shot.