A common complaint about government is that policymakers often wait until disaster looms and then enact dramatic changes in a last-minute frenzy without proper vetting of reform. We've been critical of that approach ourselves. But the recent actions of the Oklahoma Municipal League illustrate why that scenario so often becomes unavoidable in state government.
Last year, state House members advanced legislation to shore up the Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System by increasing contributions from employees and cities by 1 percent each, with the state also increasing the amount of insurance premium tax dedicated to the system. Those changes would have directed about $8.5 million more annually to the firefighters' pension system and raised its funded status from 61 percent to 97 percent over the next 30 years.
State Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Oklahoma City, who spearheaded the reform, managed to get firefighters to support the plan even though another proposed change would have lowered the return on investment for some firefighters who choose to continue working after becoming eligible for retirement.
The plan was killed in the Senate, however, due in part to opposition from cities. Missy Dean, director of the Oklahoma Municipal League, said her group opposed the legislation because cities and towns weren't included in early talks on it last year.
League officials have the right to oppose legislation and suggest changes, but their stance seems disingenuous. They complain about the plan put forth, but haven't unveiled an alternative even though they've had nearly a year to develop one. The group complains it wasn't involved in early discussions, yet the league hasn't actively pursued discussions since then. According to The Oklahoman's Michael McNutt, Dean recently told a legislative panel that officials from the municipal league only recently met with a couple of senators to discuss the issue.
If the problem before was a lack of participation by all parties, then why would the league's officials turn around and participate in extremely limited discussions behind closed doors with just two senators out of 149 state lawmakers?
The foot-dragging from city officials might be forgivable if they had a good track record on pension issues. They don't. Oklahoma cities administered the firefighters' pension plan until 30 years ago. State government had to take over that duty because the plan was only 17 percent funded at that time.
Dean correctly notes that local taxpayers will foot higher costs from the proposed 1 percent increase in city contributions to the system. But taxpayers could face far worse if nothing is done today and the system is allowed to go broke. This wouldn't happen for 68 years as things currently stand, but McDaniel notes that the longer the state waits to address the problem, the more challenging it gets to fix.
What can be resolved today with relatively small funding increases spread out over many years will require large increases in a short time frame in the future. Oklahoma taxpayers will foot the bill either way.
McDaniel's plan may not be perfect, but at least it's a plan. That's better than the approach offered so far by the Oklahoma Municipal League. In opposing McDaniel's plan, the group has a duty to unveil one of its own.