PERA records request

Public pension fund liabilities have been a concern in recent years, as too-generous state legislatures and a stagnant stock market have called into question many funds’ financial strength. Employees in many states may have been guaranteed retirement checks that cannot be backed up by current employee- and employer-payroll contributions and by investment gains. And a shortfall, if it comes, would have to be backfilled by state tax revenues.

In Colorado, that concern not too long ago brought employee representatives and the state’s elected leadership together in a collaborative fashion to agree to increased payroll deductions and a reduced expected account performance. But some observers think Colorado’s plan is still too generous.

Colorado’s new state treasurer, Walker Stapleton, is a Republican with a background in business and business investment. By statute, his state position makes him a member of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association.

Stapleton has not been critical of PERA funding levels, but he would like to know about the data groups that make up the PERA beneficiaries, saying that would help him, as a board member, contribute to better decision-making for PERA. He is not asking for names and amounts of benefits received, or amounts for specific job titles that could identify recipients. He has categories in mind: age at retirement, in what division retirees were employed, years of service, last five years of salary and ZIP code of residence.

Data in those groupings he believes could be helpful in assessing the fund’s strength, and make for better PERA decision-making.

PERA’s executive leadership will not give it to him, instead saying he should be content with the regular auditors’ reports and assessments. Stapleton’s response is that those assessments do not provide the underlying data that would give him the ability to make an independent judgment. PERA’s willingness – or lack of – to provide Stapleton the data he seeks has implications for transparency and good corporate governance, he says, and we agree.

After dueling unsuccessfully with PERA for some three months, Stapleton has now asked the courts to order the information released.

Stapleton’s requests of PERA make good sense to us. Every board member should have access to data aggregated and segregated in whatever fashions makes for a good understanding of the forces at play.

Public workers employed and retired make up a large portion of Colorado’s population, and it is critical that retirement funding now and in the future be on solid financial footing. Board members of the retirement association have an obligation to be aware of the condition of that footing, and to shore it up if necessary.

PERA ought to avoid the time and expense of a legal battle and instead give the state treasurer – and all of its board members – what he is asking for. Too many retirement checks are at stake, and too much money in employee and state payroll contributions. If there is a problem, the board needs to know; if all is well with the accounts, all involved will be the better for knowing it.

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