When an Oregon judge five years ago refused to block release of individual retirees’ pension information to the public via The Oregonian newspaper – which had gone to court to open the blinds and expose the recipients and amounts of public benefits – attorney Greg Hartman, who represented a coalition of labor unions and retiree groups angry about the move, promised a horror show.
“It’s going to make people subject to identity theft and fraud,” Hartman ranted.
However, it did reveal that more than 800 Oregon Pension Employees Retirement System beneficiaries were cashing annual six-figure retirement checks while the average state-worker retiree received around $3,000 per month.
Transparency opponents in Kentucky are engaging in similar campaigns of fear mongering and misinformation while hoping citizens just won’t open that blind to the kind of sunlight labeled “the best of disinfectants” by Louisville native and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
A recent letter to the Lexington Herald-Leader editor signed by the Kentucky Retirement Systems’ Board of Trustees – or at least those who were trustees before Gov. Matt Bevin’s remove-and-replace operation – falsely opined that “both state and federal privacy laws” prevent disclosure of the names of individuals receiving taxpayer-funded retirement benefits along with the amounts of those checks and number of public-pension plans in which those individuals are enrolled.
If their claim is true, how is it that several other states have joined Oregon – including Nevada and New Hampshire – in exposing individual retirees’ benefits?
There’s not a shred of truth in the claim that federal privacy laws would prevent undoing KRS 61.661, a misguided state law passed in 1972 under the late Wendell Ford’s administration that purposefully closed the blinds on retirees’ benefits.
The only reasonable response is to get rid of the secrecy and bring the nation’s most troubled public-retirement system out into the open and let taxpayers be privy to the depth and the darkness of the commonwealth’s public-pension liability hole, which will soon reach $40 billion.
Misinformation campaigns accompanied by Hartman-like faint concern for protecting retirees’ identity must not be allowed to prevent full transparency of all public retirees’ benefits.
Besides, if information regarding benefits is made readily available while Kentucky’s public workers are still on the job without mass identity theft, where’s the basis for concern that such fraud will occur if we reveal details of those workers’ pension benefits once they retire?
It hasn’t happened in Oregon, Nevada or New Hampshire and it won’t happen here.
Taxpayers should channel their inner Donald Trump’s deal-making ability and absolutely refuse to ante up additional public-retirement funding until a majority of Frankfort’s politicians defeat the fear mongering, ignore the misinformation and open the blinds so that we the taxpayers can see the dust, the grime, the bad and the ugly of Kentucky’s retirement systems.
“People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions,” former Chief Justice Warren Burger once wrote in a decision about open courts. “But it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing.”
Instead, they ask: Why the secrecy? What is the KRS hiding?
Former Attorney General Jack Conway once observed that citizens cannot have confidence in their government without full transparency.
“The people in delegating authority do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the public to know and what is not good for them to know,” Conway said on a KET video designed to help legislators understand the importance of an open government.
“Being transparent isn’t always easy or convenient,” he said. “Yes it would be easier if some issues could be discussed in private first. … But keeping secrets undermines the public trust.”
And if the public’s trust was ever needed, it’s now – in the face of the nation’s worst pension predicament.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.