Re-posting Sunday’s story:
BY PAUL MONIES
More than 60 state retirees, including former statewide elected officials, district attorneys and judges, are receiving annual pensions of more than $100,000.
In many cases, those annual pensions exceed the retiree’s highest annual salary and dwarf the amount the retiree contributed during his or her years of public service.
The pension information is online at AccountAbilityOK.com, a new website developed by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. The organization advocates for limited government and has called on lawmakers to convert the state pension systems to defined-contribution plans more like those in the private sector.
For several years, former State Auditor and Inspector Clifton Scott was the poster child for the state’s highest pension. But Scott, with an annual pension of about $157,000, has been supplanted by two former district attorneys, records show.
Tom Giulioli, who retired last year as the district attorney for Okmulgee and McIntosh counties, has an annual pension of more than $176,700. Cathy Stocker, who served as district attorney for 28 years in a five-county area from Enid to El Reno, has an annual pension of more than $162,000.
Both Giulioli and Stocker each earned an annual salary of almost $122,000 in their final years on the job, according to state payroll data.
Neither Giulioli nor Stocker could be reached for comment.
Changes in state pension laws and rules will stop future retirees from receiving annual pensions higher than their salaries. But thousands of current and future retirees are still “grandfathered” from the changes, which apply mostly to new state employees.
Among recent high-profile retirees with six-figure pensions are:
Former Attorney General Drew Edmondson, whose annual pension is almost $150,000 after 33 years of service.
Former state schools Superintendent Sandy Garrett, who spent 44 years in state government. Her annual pension is $123,600.
Under the state’s Open Records Act, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs collected individual pension benefit data from three of the state’s six major pension systems. The data on the AccountAbilityOK.com website covers more than 75,000 retirees or their beneficiaries.
Three public safety pension systems — firefighters, police and law enforcement — declined to provide the same information as the pension systems for teachers, state employees and judges, said Jonathan Small, fiscal policy director for the group.
Small said the public safety pension systems all cited confidentiality for not releasing individual beneficiary data. He called on lawmakers to open the beneficiary information for the public safety pension systems.
“Citizens, who in the end are responsible for paying all the promises of these pension systems, deserve to know the details and results of financial obligations for which they are on the hook,” Small said.
Tom Spencer, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System, said lawmakers opened basic information about the system’s beneficiaries in the wake of the Gene Stipe scandal.
Stipe, a former state senator from McAlester, pleaded guilty in 2003 to federal campaign finance violations. Stipe, who is 84 and suffers from dementia, continues to receive a state pension of more than $95,800 annually.
The public employees retirement system tried to forfeit Stipe’s pension after his guilty plea in 2003. Stipe’s attorneys fought the effort all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and won in 2008.
“Former Sen. Cal Hobson ran a bill in 2004 to make not just elected officials pension amounts public, but all OPERS pension amounts public,” Spencer said. “Ever since then, all of that information is a matter of public record.”
Most receive less
The outliers in the “six-figure pension club” tend to overshadow the tens of thousands of other state retirees and their beneficiaries who receive annual pensions of much less, Spencer said.
“A handful of these people were really fortunate when the loophole existed and they’re making these pensions, but there’s just a handful of them,” Spencer said. “The average Joe Blow pension benefit is pretty modest. They’ve worked for many years at modest pay and they’re getting some pension benefits, but that’s it.”
The average pension at the Oklahoma Public Employee Retirement System is about
$18,000 $15,200. It’s about $19,160 at the Teachers Retirement System. Retired judges, who make higher salaries, tend to have higher pensions. The average pension is more than $60,800 $60,100 at the Uniform Retirement System for Justices or Judges.
More than one-third of the retirees in the three pension systems that provided data are receiving annual pensions in excess of the entire amount they contributed as an employee.
Much of the recent focus on public retirement pensions has come as companies in the private sector continue to shed defined-benefit pension plans in favor of defined-contribution plans such as 401(k)s. Investment losses from the recession also sharpened the scrutiny by taxpayers and other groups throughout the country, said James Wilbanks, executive director of the Teachers Retirement System.
Lawmakers made changes in the 2011 legislative session to address some of the shortfalls in the state pension systems. The biggest was forcing future cost-of-living adjustments to have a dedicated funding source. That alone will shave about $5 billion in unfunded liabilities from an estimated shortfall of $16.5 billion.
Other reforms increased the retirement age for new hires in the Teachers Retirement System to 65 from 62. Also, elected officials will be treated like other state employees. They no longer will be allowed to contribute at higher rates to receive higher pension benefits.
Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Edmond, has requested several interim legislative studies on pension issues. McDaniel and Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, authored several of the pension bills that passed earlier this year.
“This is a long-term process,” said McDaniel, chairman of a new House oversight committee on pensions. “It took many decades to get in this financial condition. We made a significant difference last session; nonetheless, we still have much work to be done. We are still among the bottom in the states on our financial status.
State Treasurer Ken Miller, who is chairman of the Oklahoma State Pension Commission, said continuing the reforms will help put the pension systems on a firmer footing. As tax revenues rebound, Miller said he hopes legislators won’t succumb to pressure to grant cost-of-living adjustments just because extra money is available to spend.
Unlike other states where pension reforms have been met with hardened opposition, Miller said lawmakers, employee groups and pension officials have worked together to make necessary changes. More can be done, he said.
“We have a different workforce than we did when these pension systems were designed,” Miller said. “There’s some desire for plans that offer choice and flexibility that will meet employee needs and be fair to taxpayers.
Written by Paul Monies