Hundreds of firefighters from across Oklahoma rallied Monday to show opposition to efforts to consolidate the staff, boards and offices of several pension plans into one and legislation to change the state workers' compensation court into an administrative system, which they said would reduce benefits.
Herb Bradshaw, executive director of the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association, told about 400 firefighters gathered outside on the south steps of the state Capitol that he was perturbed to hear radio advertisements supporting the consolidation.
Bradshaw said firefighters have not been involved in talks to consolidate the pension commissions and that no legislation has been filed, although at least two empty, or shell, bills could be used this year. He said he was irked that the ads referred to firefighters as being a special interest group opposed to the consolidation of pension boards.
“We are not a special interest group, we are Oklahoma fire,” Bradshaw said. “If we have to fight the devil himself to put out his fire, we'll do it.”
Oklahoma has seven pension plans, six of which have independent boards, staff, offices, consultants and investment managers.
Oklahoma firefighters have their own pension board, the Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System.
About 220,000 employees and retirees are part of the state's pension system. Those covered include teachers, agency workers, police, troopers, firefighters and judges.
Not combining funds
The state spends $80 million to $100 million each year to administer the pensions. Gov. Mary Fallin, who supports the consolidation, has estimated the state could realize at least 15 percent in savings by consolidating the pension plans.
Fallin's press secretary, Aaron Cooper, said after the rally that the consolidation is a priority for the governor.
“The state pension system faces $11 billion in unfunded liabilities, putting the solvency of those plans at risk,” Cooper said. “The governor has no plans to consolidate the state pension funds. The governor does feel there is great potential for cost savings by streamlining the management of the state's seven pension systems.”
Bradshaw said he is disappointed about the push to consolidate the pension commissions, especially after firefighters worked the past two years on legislation intended to reduce the unfunded liability of the firefighters' pension system.
Proposed legislation this year calls for a reduction in retirement benefits for future firefighters and increasing the current employee and employer contributions as well as state funding for the firefighters pension.
Also of concern
Firefighters also were told to oppose Senate Bill 1062, which would reduce compensation benefits available to injured workers.
Gary Huddleston, a lobbyist for Lawyers for Working Oklahomans, said the measure would reduce widows' benefits and abolish workers' compensation coverage for all of Oklahoma's volunteer firefighters injured in the line of duty.