Access Denied

Ed News Colorado reports on last Thursday’s State Appeals Court ruling denying State Treasurer Walker Stapleton access to dereferenced PERA data for high-salaried members:

Stapleton, a Republican, is a vociferous critic of the current PERA structure. The state treasurer is automatically a member of the 16-member PERA board. First elected in 2010, Stapleton in 2011 asked the board for access to individual records (without names) of the top 20 percent of PERA retirees, based on pension amounts.

High-dollar pensions have been something of a fixation for GOP critics of PERA, even though the average monthly benefit paid by the system is $3,020. Most PERA members aren’t eligible for Social Security. The PERA system covers all Colorado teachers and many higher education employees.

That last paragraph requires some rebuttal.  High-dollar pensions are a fixation in large part because the rest of the PERA board decided to go to the mattresses to keep the information from being released.  One might just as easily ask why keeping high-dollar pensions secret is something of an obsession for PERA.

That said, there are some excellent reasons for wanting to examine PERA’s high-dollar pensions.

First, at least some of those pensions come from teachers’ union reps, who are frequently no longer doing work for their school district, and instead are working exclusively for the union.  The status of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) union rep became a major point of contention during open negotiations, mostly because she would have continued to accrue PERA benefits, even though the union offered to pay both her salary and her personal PERA contribution.  With a $1 billion tax increase likely to be on the ballot this fall, and with much of the opposition to that tax increase based on the fact that about half of it would go to fund teachers pensions rather than classrooms, non-teaching union reps receiving outsized pension benefits would be embarrassing both for PERA and for tax increase supporters.

The other reason for concern over high-dollar pensions is the agency problem surrounding the PERA board itself.  Most of the board are PERA members, and many receive high salaries, and so will be eligible for high-dollar pensions when they retire.  With the PERA board having opposed recent attempts at reorganization, so that fewer board members are voting on their own benefits, the last thing they want is for attention to be focused on those benefits.

From a political point of view, it also makes sense for Treasurer Stapleton to try to split PERA beneficiaries between the average member and the high dollar recipient.  While the PERA board and its allies have a history of resisting attempts to limit benefits overall, or to change the benefit calculation formula, a graphic demonstration of the actual distribution of benefits could lead many average PERA recipients to rebel against leadership, and accept limits at the high end of the scale.  From the board’s point of view, that would be an ominous development.

While the Appeals Court has decided that Colorado taxpayers are not entitled to this information about their senior government employees, there is yet hope that the State Supreme Court will decide differently.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post mistakenly attributed the ruling to the State Supreme Court.

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