Colorado Treasurer says open data the key to pension solutions

In 2011, Colorado State Treasurer Walker Stapleton asked for access to data regarding his state’s pension fund; as a member of the pension board, he had seen first-hand how unhealthy the system was, and he wanted access to the “financial DNA” of the system—data on the top 20% of beneficiaries, their annual benefits, age of retirement, former job and last 5 years of salary.

His request for the data was denied, so he filed a lawsuit to get it.

Stapleton still hasn’t seen that data, but three years later, he’s still trying to get it. Now his lawsuit sits in the state’s Supreme Court awaiting oral arguments and he’s closer than ever to learning more about the Colorado retirement system, which is only 63% funded.

Stapleton sat down today with Bloomberg to discuss Colorado’s pension system:

Q: You have said that the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association’s return assumption is unrealistic. In November, it lowered the rate to 7.5 percent from 8 percent. Should it be cut further?

A: Absolutely. There’s more opportunity to go lower. States that have conservative assumptions as their rates of return have assumptions in the sixes, and as a result their plans are quote unquote healthy or better-funded than our plan is. Colorado has consistently ranked in the bottom 20 percent of funding ratios for state public-pension programs.

Q: What changes do you recommend to reduce the pension liability?

A: Retirement age is one of the things that we need to look at. We also need to look at increased contribution levels from new employees and current employees in the system for the defined benefits they’ve been getting. If they’re not willing to have increased contribution levels or the retirement age adjusted, then potentially they could have the option of joining a defined-contribution plan.

Stapleton says in the same interview that transparency in retirement systems is the key to making them healthier—obtaining the data about payouts is the only way to construct a plan to reduce the unfunded liabilities that weigh the system down.

Nevada’s public pensions are now public knowledge

The Nevada Public Employees Retirement System (NVPERS) has for years been notoriously tight-lipped about the benefits it provides its members. But no longer: the Nevada Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that public pension data are public records, and now those records are online for all to explore.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute launched its database of public pension data this week on the aptly named Transparent Nevada website.

Among other findings, the data brings to light the number of workers who are “double-dipping”; in other words, employees who earn two salaries by retiring from one job and going to work for another, all while receiving their full pension benefit payments from the first job.

Glenn Cook at the Las Vegas Review Journal has more:

Let’s start with a name that might surprise you: Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie. Bet you didn’t know that anyone who is elected sheriff has to formally retire from the police force before assuming office. The sheriff has a base salary north of $140,000. But in January, he also collected a gross pension benefit of $12,904, with a net payment of $10,874. If he receives the same check every month (PERS said January checks sometimes include credits and deductions), that’s an annual pension benefit of about $155,000, for total public-sector pay of nearly $300,000.

Here’s another one: Family Court Judge Robert Teuton. The longtime prosecutor and juvenile justice official retired from the county when was appointed to the bench in 2008. As a judge, he collects an annual salary of about $160,000. In January, he also collected a gross PERS benefit of $15,325, with a net payment of $10,099. Assuming that benefit is relatively consistent throughout the year, his total annual public-sector pay is north of $300,000.

There are plenty of other recognizable figures cashing two checks these days. Las Vegas City Councilman Stavros Anthony is a retired Las Vegas police detective. His salary as a councilman is north of $75,000. His January PERS benefit was $12,249 gross, $10,218 net. He’s probably raking in more than $200,000 per year at your expense.

Andy Matthews, president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, said the database is already paying dividends.

“The PERS payouts now available on TransparentNevada show exactly why PERS bureaucrats worked so hard to keep this secret,” he told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “The information shows — in inflated retirement payout after inflated retirement payout — what Nevadans have long suspected: Public employee pensions are exorbitant and unsustainable.”