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Oklahoma's firefighter pension fund needs help, legislative panel told

The fund could run out of money in less than 70 years, the executive director of the pension system tells lawmakers. He suggests bringing back legislation that would improve it by employees, the cities and the state increasing their contributions to the pension system.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Published: October 5, 2012

The state firefighter pension system could be broke in 68 years unless lawmakers take action to shore up the underfunded system, the executive director of the Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System told a legislative panel Thursday.

“We need to do something,” Bob Jones told members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives Pension Oversight Committee.

Legislation that would have increased contributions by employees, cities and the state to the system won overwhelming approval this year in the House, but failed to advance in the Senate.

Firefighters supported the measure, but most cities opposed it.

The measure, House Bill 2320, would have increased the contributions from employees and cities by 1 percent. The state would have increased the amount of insurance premium taxes dedicated to the system.

The legislation would have put the firefighters pension, which now is funded at 61 percent, at 97 percent funded in 30 years, Jones said.

“It does provide long-term recovery for the pension system,” he said. “It's really not that big of a change and it shows you how much a slight tweak early in the problem can be saved with the benefit of time.”

Jones asked the committee to bring the legislation back next year.

Missy Dean, director of governmental relations for the Oklahoma Municipal League, said her group opposed the proposal because cities were not included in early talks. The leagues also is concerned another section of the measure would have taken away a right from an employee who is already vested in a pension program.

“We didn't think that was true reform,” she said. “We've never been able to get numbers.

“Our people were more upset about being left out of the table if you're asking the cities to contribute more money because in the end it's taxpayer dollars that are going to it,” Dean said.

She and Jones said not much discussion has taken place since the session ended in late May. But they met with a couple senators last month on what could be done to help the firefighters pension system. It's possible talks could continue.

Chalk Norton, a lobbyist for the Professional Fire Fighters of Oklahoma, said firefighters still support the concept.

“It's probably a good place to start this year,” he said.

Rep. Randy McDaniel, who authored HB 2320 and is chairman of the House Pension Oversight Committee, said it's time for all sides to come together and find a solution “that is meaningful but also is achievable.”

“There is a solution out there and I am committed to trying to find a solution,” said McDaniel, R-Oklahoma City. “The simple fact is we have a plan that's on an unsustainable course. We need to change that situation.

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