In a preliminary opinion issued Tuesday, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock said that the public has the right to the know names of public pension recipients and their associated monthly payment amounts.
The opinion stems from a dispute involving MontanaWatchdog.org, a news and policy website in the Treasure State, and the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS). Earlier this year, Phil Drake, a writer for the news site, asked TRS for the names and payment amounts of its top 10 pension recipients. Drake says TRS withheld the names but released the payment amounts.
In Idaho, any inquiry about pension payments made by the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho (PERSI) results in a similar situation to Montana. PERSI will release top pension amounts but will not release the names associated with the payments.
Among a number of other requests, IdahoReporter.com asked for the top 100 monthly pension payments for PERSI beneficiaries. Every benefit on the list was for more than $70,000 a year, with seven of those being for more than $100,000 annually. The top PERSI recipient takes in $149,345.40 each year.
The total yearly payments for the top 100 beneficiaries equals about $8.2 million.
In response to a question about why Idaho does not release the name of beneficiaries, PERSI communication director Patrice Perowpointed to Idaho Code 59-1316. That section of law states that the names of the recipients should remain confidential.
But does the public’s right to know conflict with that section of code?
Donna Yule with the Idaho Public Employees Association (IPEA) said that opening up the pension information to the public might clear some misconceptions that all public employees are getting rich off the public retirement system. “Maybe it would be good for people to know what the benefit really is,” Yule explained.
She couldn’t give a firm answer on if IPEA would support release of the names of beneficiary recipients, however. “We would have to take a closer look at it,” she explained.
It could offer one more advantage, Yule pointed out. She believes releasing names of recipients would help stop public officials from “gaming the system” and using loopholes to spike retirement benefits.
Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, inferred that names should be released. “I don’t know why it (names) wouldn’t be public since the salaries are,” said Jaquet in an e-mail to IdahoReporter.com.
Montana Attorney General Bullock says that even though a request of privacy for TRS beneficiaries is reasonable, it does not exceed the public’s right to know. “Such information helps the public to understand how the state is using its tax dollars and what budget priorities the state has set for those dollars,” wrote Bullock. “Accordingly, such information is crucial to fostering the public’s trust in government.”
Because taxpayers help fund the retirement account of public employees, Bullock states, the names of recipients should be disclosed upon request. “Likewise, their retirement benefits are paid by public funds and, necessarily, subject to the public’s same interest in understanding how the government is functioning,” he said.
In an interview with IdahoReporter.com, MontanaWatchdog.org reporter Drake said that releasing names and pension amounts of beneficiaries leads to a more open and transparent government. “State employees should have an expectation of being held accountable to the public when they are hired,” Drake said. “Most pension plans are operating at a loss, leaving the public holding the financial bag – not only now, but for generations to come.”
Here is a breakdown of all amounts paid by PERSI:
|Annual Benefit Amt.||# of recipients||Percent of
recipients to total
|between 0 – $10,000||15781||44.45%|
|between $10k – $25k||11063||31.16%|
|between $25k – $50k||7375||20.77%|
|between $50k – $75k||1217||3.43%|
|between $75k – $100k||62||0.17%|