Kentucky’s pension debt, which stands at nearly $34 billion today, is expected to reach $40 billion during the next three years.
How different would our situation be today if former Gov. Wendell Ford had not decided back in 1972 that taxpayers don’t have a right to know who receives their hard-earned dollars in the form of pensions, or even how many pensions some state retirees get?
Ford, who ruled Frankfort with an iron fist, pushed through KRS 61.661 in his first year as governor. Incredibly, the law fully endorses hiding public pension spending: “Each current, former, or retired member’s account shall be administered in a confidential manner and specific data regarding a current, former, or retired member shall not be released for publication unless authorized by the member."
Since its passage, many politicians have scored political points by claiming to believe in transparency. Our current governor, Steve Beshear, claimed his would be an administration committed to transparency. He even started his OpenDoor website, which claims “you have a right to know.”
Yet there’s still no indication that his office will shine transparency’s light on any project promising controversy – like a serious effort to make pension records public.
Don’t we also have a “right to know” about our funding of public pensions, governor?
The Kentucky Open Records Act of 1976 declared that “free and open examination of public records is in the public interest … even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials and others.”
Such “inconvenience” and “embarrassment” have motivated legislators and pension beneficiaries to even fight in court in other states to keep government pensions from being treated like public records.
In Oregon, they lost their fight. As a result, Oregonians now know that the top 10 pension beneficiaries get monthly taxpayer-funded pension checks ranging from $41,341.67 for former University of Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti to $19,477 for Anthony Montanor, who retired from Oregon Health and Science University.
Included on that list were two former public school administrators who cash monthly pension checks in excess of $20,000. (What might such transparency in Kentucky reveal about former, highly paid school administrators?)
No wonder the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System closed the records of pension benefits paid to the elite among government workers in 2002 and fought long and hard in court to keep them closed, going so far as to sue The Oregonian and Statesman-Journal newspapers simply for wanting to inform taxpayers about how their money is handled.
In the end, the drapes were pulled and showed that while a majority of Oregon retirees receive a modest monthly pension of $3,000 or less, 810 received pensions of more than $100,000 a year.
Opponents of making public pensions transparent may try to claim that federal law requires keeping retirement information of state and local public workers secret.
That’s not so, as we found out in Pennsylvania, where – thanks to newspapers’ willingness to fight for public-pension transparency for years – taxpayers know that former assistant Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, a convicted serial child molester, will get annual $59,000 pension checks in prison.
In reporting its state’s top-10 pension beneficiaries, The Oregonian noted that Bellotti, the former football coach “said he didn’t make the PERS rules, and simply lived by the package he was offered.”
He actually makes an important point to remember in Kentucky. If, and when, public pension records are opened in Kentucky, keep in mind that benefit packages are approved by state lawmakers and the governor.
And those benefits are not transparent for the same reason –past legislators wanted it that way. Meanwhile, Frankfort’s current crop of politicians seems uninterested in doing anything about it.
Jim Waters is vice president of communications for the Bluegrass Institute.