State must eye pension costs

New York taxpayers should be gratified that the state’s highest appeals court has ruled information in public pension plans should remain public.

The state Teachers’ Retirement System had, for more than two years, refused to release the names of teachers receiving taxpayer-funded pensions. Court briefs filed by the Public Employees Federation and New York State United Teachers argued analysis of pension data can be done without the names of the retirees and that privacy interests for retirees outweigh the public’s benefit to having the information available.

Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy filing is a cautionary tale of the need to closely monitor public pension funds and to expose waste and fraud in the system. Having names of pensioners available in the past has led to exposure of fraud and waste in government pension systems, the revelation of which has resulted in constructive public dialogue and change to the ways in which pensions are administered.

The state Court of Appeals agreed with that reasoning when it ruled against the teachers’ union and overturned a 2011 appellate division decision that allowed New York City police officers to keep their pension earnings private. Justices ruled state law exempts the public disclosure of a pension recipient’s home address, not the names of those who receive public pensions, as well as the names and addresses of survivors of a deceased retiree who received pension benefits.

Having the tools to expose waste and fraud is a good first step and one for which the state Court of Appeals should be commended.

Now we point to the state Legislature, which needs to exert the collective political will to do something about mounting public pension costs. It will be another decade before the public sees the full benefit of the Tier 6 reform. State lawmakers should enact legislation that ends pension padding – a longtime practice by which public workers work as much overtime as possible in their last couple of years before retirement to drive up the worth of their yearly pensions after retirement.

Such reforms are ultimately small potatoes, but they’re a start.

New York may need to make bigger changes and shift its defined-benefit pension plan to a 401(k)-style, defined-contribution plan like those private-sector workers use to fund their retirement. Increasing the retirement age or length of service required for a full pension payout would also be helpful. Such changes wouldn’t be popular with public employee unions, but they match the reality of many in the private sector who find themselves working longer and contributing more for their retirement.