Some former Oklahoma officials' state pensions top $100K

More than 60 former Oklahoma elected officials, district attorneys and judges have pensions of more than $100,000 per year, according to new data collected by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. But the majority of retirees make much less, records show.
BY PAUL MONIES pmonies@opubco.com Published: June 26, 2011
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photo - Drew Edmondson, former Oklahoma attorney general
Drew Edmondson, former Oklahoma attorney general

The public employees retirement system tried to forfeit Stipe's pension after his guilty plea in 2003. Stipe's attorneys fought the effort all the way to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and won in 2008.

“Former Sen. Cal Hobson ran a bill in 2004 to make not just elected officials pension amounts public, but all OPERS pension amounts public,” Spencer said. “Ever since then, all of that information is a matter of public record.”

Most receive less

The outliers in the “six-figure pension club” tend to overshadow the tens of thousands of other state retirees and their beneficiaries who receive annual pensions of much less, Spencer said.

“A handful of these people were really fortunate when the loophole existed and they're making these pensions, but there's just a handful of them,” Spencer said. “The average Joe Blow pension benefit is pretty modest. They've worked for many years at modest pay and they're getting some pension benefits, but that's it.”

The average pension at the Oklahoma Public Employee Retirement System is about $15,200. It's about $19,160 at the Teachers Retirement System. Retired judges, who make higher salaries, tend to have higher pensions. The average pension is more than $60,800 at the Uniform Retirement System for Justices or Judges.

More than one-third of the retirees in the three pension systems that provided data are receiving annual pensions in excess of the entire amount they contributed as an employee.

Much of the recent focus on public retirement pensions has come as companies in the private sector continue to shed defined-benefit pension plans in favor of defined-contribution plans such as 401(k)s. Investment losses from the recession also sharpened the scrutiny by taxpayers and other groups throughout the country, said James Wilbanks, executive director of the Teachers Retirement System.

Legislative changes

Lawmakers made changes in the 2011 legislative session to address some of the shortfalls in the state pension systems. The biggest was forcing future cost-of-living adjustments to have a dedicated funding source. That alone will shave about $5 billion in unfunded liabilities from an estimated shortfall of $16.5 billion.

Other reforms increased the retirement age for new hires in the Teachers Retirement System to 65 from 62. Also, elected officials will be treated like other state employees. They no longer will be allowed to contribute at higher rates to receive higher pension benefits.

Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Edmond, has requested several interim legislative studies on pension issues. McDaniel and Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, authored several of the pension bills that passed earlier this year.

“This is a long-term process,” said McDaniel, chairman of a new House oversight committee on pensions. “It took many decades to get in this financial condition. We made a significant difference last session; nonetheless, we still have much work to be done. We are still among the bottom in the states on our financial status.”

State Treasurer Ken Miller, who is chairman of the Oklahoma State Pension Commission, said continuing the reforms will help put the pension systems on a firmer footing. As tax revenues rebound, Miller said he hopes legislators won't succumb to pressure to grant cost-of-living adjustments just because extra money is available to spend.

Unlike other states where pension reforms have been met with hardened opposition, Miller said lawmakers, employee groups and pension officials have worked together to make necessary changes. More can be done, he said.

“We have a different workforce than we did when these pension systems were designed,” Miller said. “There's some desire for plans that offer choice and flexibility that will meet employee needs and be fair to taxpayers.”

Check out more than 75,000 state retiree pension amounts...

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