Public pension sunshine badly needed in Florida
Taxpayers should know how much they are paying in pensions to retired officials
What has an estimated $22 billion unfunded taxpayer liability, pays out more than $3.74 billion in "management fees" every 10 years, and costs taxpayers more money annually than the budgets of 13 states? Answer: Florida's public pension systems.
It's national Sunshine Week across America. During this week, good-government groups advocate for open government and transparency in public spending. One area that remains hidden are public pensions in Florida.
Imagine if you could see how much your former Florida representative — or any other state, county or local employee — makes in government retirement pension? Just how many years were "worked?" How much money was paid-in? How much did taxpayers finance? And, once retired, just how quickly did the lawmaker "break-even" on their own contributions?
Even Illinois — where the state's No. 1 manufactured product is corruption — has the courtesy to show taxpayers all of the gory details.
This transparency has been instrumental in identifying pension abuses. For example, our organization at OpenTheBooks.com found that a pair of Illinois union lobbyists who substitute taught for one day in the public school system actually received $1 million lifetime "teacher" pensions. This happened despite a state law expressly designed to stop them.
Many other states have public pension transparency. Citizen outrage in California drove lawmakers to pass a state law curbing a $545,000 pension to a city manager in Vernon, Calif. (population 112). Now, that manager is retired on $115,000 per year — a 79 percent reduction.
Inside the 471 individual retirement systems across the state of Florida, what mistakes have been made while calculating retirement pensions? Nobody has a clue. Three years ago, we filed a Freedom of Information Act
request for individual pension data in Florida. The pension systems rejected our request, saying this data was exempt under the Florida Sunshine law. Yet, our requests for the active salaries of 838,091 public employees at almost every level of government was fulfilled, sometimes with salary histories dating from FY2000. We post these salaries (with names) at OpenTheBooks.com.
If active salaries/bonuses are subject to sunshine, why would posting the lists of individual retiree pension amounts, service credits and contributions be an invasion of privacy? The same privacy law should underlie both records.
Taxpayer groups should not have to have a search warrant to see this data. Far too often, state and local government officials receive special handshake deals from the smoke-filled backroom. Think about the 3,026 highly compensated public employees displayed in our database at the state and local levels that out-earn every governor of the 50 states ($187,800 — 2014 base salary).
Think about the "retired" city manager of Apopka. Richard Anderson earned $510,296.40 in final-year compensation (2014), which probably created a lifetime pension spike in just one of the two pensions he was eligible to collect. Then, the city rehired him as a lobbyist with a two-year contract worth another $528,000.
Granted, there is a mix of public and private dollars contributed to the pension. But taxpayers are guaranteeing the entire formula. Floridians deserve to see the granular details of who's receiving what, when and after how long. In fact, each year, taxpayers in Florida spend more on pensions than 13 states spend on their entire state budgets — a staggering $9.3 billion (2013).
Furthermore, the Florida pension systems have expenditures of more than $3.75 billion every 10 years in administrative expenses and management fees. A study by the Maryland Public Policy Institute in 2013 showed Florida pension systems were spending more than $374.2 million per year in management expenses, six times higher than Alabama. It's time to follow the money.
Recently, in Ohio, Treasurer Josh Mandel did just this. Mandel took pension fund transparency to the next level by convincing the state's retirement systems to post online their line-by-line checkbook spending.
The Mandel Rule of posting the checkbook of pension fund management fees and expenses must be replicated across America. After all, these expenditures are literally funded with government employee retirement dollars.
The public policy implications for Florida taxpayers are obvious. Serious budget reformers on both sides often argue that everything has to be on the table. Pensions deserve their place at the table as well. After all, you can't reform what you can't see. The only way to stop corruption — legal or illegal — is to expose the payments.
Together, join us in the clarion call for the transparency of both Florida pension annuities and the actual checkbook expenses of the retirement funds. It's time to open the books.
Adam Andrzejewski is founder and CEO of OpenTheBooks.com.