Public pensions should be public

Workers who retire on state Public Employee Retirement System pensions would like to keep their names private — and unions representing those workers are pushing for legislation this year to make the names secret. That would be a mistake. Oregonians deserve to know the size of the pensions their tax dollars are supporting — and to whom they are being paid.

Pension information was public for years — just like public employee salaries — until PERS officials simply stopped releasing retirees' names in 2002. The Oregonian and (Salem) Statesman Journal newspapers filed suit to obtain the information, and PERS agreed to release the data under the terms of a settlement.

It was thanks to that settlement that Oregonians learned former University of Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti was getting nearly half a million dollars a year in retirement benefits. What's more, 837 retirees are receiving more than $100,000 a year.

It might seem unfair to those retirees to publicize their income. After all, isn't that their business?

If they were private-sector retirees, yes. But they were public employees, and the public is paying their retirement benefits, at least indirectly. While they were working, their salaries — with names attached — were public record. That's a sacrifice they knowingly made when entering public service. Why should their retirement earnings be any different?

Courts across the country have ruled that retirees' names and their pension benefits are public record. And information that should be private still is: The court settlement allows PERS to withhold retirees' addresses, dates of birth and Social Security numbers, so the retirees are not at risk of identify theft.

PERS has undergone significant reform in recent years, which has helped to erase some of the shortfall in the system, but it is still $12.8 billion short of meeting all of its obligations. Cities, counties and school districts have been forced to increase their contribution rates to cover retirees' pension and health care benefits. That money comes out of operating budgets. The public is entitled to know how pension payments affect public services, and that means knowing who is drawing how much in retirement benefits.

Pension data without names wouldn't reveal an administrator who takes a new six-figure public job while already drawing a state pension. It also wouldn't reveal how much a former lawmaker stood to gain in retirement benefits from taking a high-paying state job after serving in the Legislature for years.

Legislation has been drafted to keep retirees' names secret. It's not clear how much support it will have in the session that starts next month. Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, who serves on the House Business and Labor Committee that will hear the bill, says he hasn't decided yet whether to support it.

If public retirees' names are made secret, how long will it be before public employees seek anonymity as well?

The bill should be defeated.

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