Pension Info Needs to Be More Open
It must be nice.
That’s about all the average financially anxious, privately employed taxpayer can say as he or she looks enviously at the comfy pensions enjoyed by county and state employees, all at the expense of said taxpayer.
As we have noted before, this is a matter that all levels of government need to bring under control before it bankrupts them. Most private employers, after all, have eliminated pensions altogether in favor of 401(k) plans, and ultimately we see no reason not to do something similar in the public sector.
In the meantime, insult was recently added to injury. Not only are North Carolinians unable to do anything about pension excesses, but they also can’t even learn how extensive they are. A curtain of official secrecy has come down, keeping relevant and perhaps embarrassing information conveniently tucked away in the dark.
Specifically, reporter Dan Kane of The News & Observer of Raleigh recently learned that 260 state retirees get pensions of $100,000 or more each. But State Treasurer Janet Cowell, who oversees the state’s retirement system, said that state personnel law prohibits her from letting the public know what those 260 retirees did during their careers to justify such lavish benefits.
She’s apparently right. The secrecy requirement traces back to amendments attached to the State Personnel Act three years ago. Yet nobody seems to want to claim parentage of the changes, and their inception seems murky. State Sen. Richard Stevens of Cary, who sponsored the amendments, claims that he didn’t intend to bar access to the kind of information reporters are now seeking about retirees.
Maybe. But the fact is that the State Personnel Act is said to be possibly the most restrictive in the nation when it comes to openness — or lack thereof. By blocking access to any kind of meaningful information about the work history and compensation histories, it makes things difficult for any member of the public (not just nosy reporters) to find any patterns, such as whether one individual manipulated the system to his benefit or scored a cushier retirement than another because of cronyism or favoritism.
Some limited employee information of a strictly personal nature perhaps deserves to remain private. What’s ridiculous about the particular job-history information in question is that it was freely available at the time the employees were on the job. Why should it suddenly become secret when they no longer are? This seems like a statutory kink — purportedly even an unintended one — that the legislature should quickly iron out in its current short session.
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