Open records on pension benefits

It always rankles when someone elected to public office tells the people who put him there that they don't really need to know something about government.

It further rankles when people asking for information are characterized as "nosy."

But that is exactly what state Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said last week as he explained to reporter John Cheves his plan for killing a bill that would provide more transparency about our deeply troubled state retirement system.

House Bill 48, sponsored by Lexington Republican Robert Benvenuti, would bring pensions paid to retired state workers under the state Open Records Act and, thereby, open to the public.

Currently, salaries paid to state government employees are all subject to open records, but the publicly subsidized retirement benefits they receive when they leave government are not. This just doesn't make any sense.

As often happens, people who oppose this type of change proclaim they are trying to protect the little guy. The information shouldn't be available just because someone "wants to see what his neighbor is drawing for a pension," Yonts said.

More likely, legislators are going to be concerned about what the media and the public would be able to learn about the generous pensions for many of their own as a result of laws they, themselves, passed.

Most notable is the 2005 law that allows part-time legislators who move on to higher-paid jobs in another branch of government to base pension calculations on the higher, full-time salary.

This can more than double the pension a legislator would have received based on legislative pay alone, even if the bulk of their years in government were in the lower-paid, part-time job.

Any number of ex-lawmakers have benefitted or will benefit from this, including former Senate President David Williams, and former Sens. Dan Kelly and Kathy Stein, all of whom are judges now, and those who now are in the upper echelons of the executive branch of state government.

For example, when Sen. Charlie Borders, R-Russell, was appointed to his $117,000-a-year post as on the Public Service Commission, his pension benefit, if he stayed only three years in that job, jumped at least $37,500 a year.

And, of course, they could be collecting these pensions for decades. The numbers begin to add up.

Some will argue that if the point of transparency is to shame legislators into giving up their preferential retirements, the impact of a few legislators getting plush retirements is mathematically unimportant given the size of the state pension systems, which include more than 300,000 employees and retirees.

Perhaps, or perhaps not. It's hard to say until you can see the numbers. But the point of transparency is never to achieve just one specific policy goal, it's to open government so those who pay for it can know what's going on.

Some might call that nosy; we call it good government.