Pensions gain, transparency shortchanged

Thanks to the efforts of the Kentucky General Assembly this session our grossly underfunded public pension funds will get needed cash infusions. Unfortunately, to the discredit of that same legislative body, we won’t know much more about how those funds are managing the billions under their control than we did before.

In a similar vein, legislators went home without passing a bill that would have expanded public information about how area development districts in Kentucky manage the $175 million in public funds they receive each year to provide services for the elderly and workforce training.

And, we won’t know how much retired members of the General Assembly receive in public pensions.

Each of those measures was introduced separately during the session and the three were also combined very late into a so-called super-transparency bill. However, at the end of the day neither any one of the separate bills nor the super-transparency measure made it through both houses.

Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, lead champion for the pension transparency bill, called the failure to act, “super unfortunate.” Reasonably enough, Bowen believes that appropriating more public money for the pensions, which he supported, should go “hand in glove,” with opening the books of the pension systems managing the money. “We need to know what the systems are doing, obviously,” he said Monday.

Some of the things we don’t know that Bowen’s bill would have brought into the open include complete information about investment returns, the fees the systems pay investment advisers, or the nature of the contracts with those advisers.

It is a disservice, both to the taxpayers who will ante up for the funds and the public retirees who were promised the benefits and depend upon them, to pour in more money without also demanding to know more about how it is managed.

Similarly, the drive to achieve more accountability from the area development districts is a sensible attempt to assure public dollars are being spent appropriately and efficiently. It does not take a scandal to lobby for that type of transparency but in this case there has been one at the Bluegrass Area Development District. Whether the misdeeds are all in the past, as current management contends, or not, the principle is the same: public money demands public accountability.

Finally, it is troubling that members of the General Assembly are so blind to the optics of refusing to open up the pension benefits they themselves will receive. Many former legislators are collecting very generous pensions thanks to bills they themselves passed. Like all government employees, their pay while in office is public information. Their retirement benefits should be, too.