Measure withdrawn, special status continues for association executives

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 17-Mar-2010

House Bill 3108, aimed at ending a special status in the Oklahoma Teacher Retirement System (OTRS) afforded to association executives, including union presidents, was pulled from the House calendar last week.

After weeks that included direct opposition lobbying by the state’s largest labor union, and stormy hearings attended by other association executives, the lead sponsor of H.B. 3108 pulled the measure from consideration. To be considered in the Senate, House bills needed to pass by Thursday, March 11.

The purpose of H.B. 3108, sponsored by state Rep. Sally Kern of Oklahoma City, was to delete controversial language in state law allowing former teachers who have become executives of associations and unions to retain and build retirement benefits in OTRS. The program has been described as among the nation’s two or three worst-funded retirement systems.

Kern had pressed to delete state law allowing association executives to stay in the system. In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, she said, “This is an issue I will continue to pursue in the future. This issue was not brought forward this year for several reasons. One is the almost certain fact that the Governor probably would not have signed the bill into law. There was even some question as to whether the Senate would allow the bill to proceed forward.”

Kern continued, “Protecting taxpayer’s money is a top priority for me. Tax dollars should go to support those activities and agencies of government that are legitimate functions state government.” A Republican, Kern said the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) are among nine benefiting private groups, organizations which she described as groups “that work with Oklahoma’s teachers who are government employees to improve the quality of education for our students.”

Kern said, “Nonetheless, these unions and associations are not government employees and therefore should not have any part of their retirement benefits subsidized by tax dollars. To use tax dollars to help provide benefits to non-government employees takes money out of the system that should be going to fund cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for our retired teachers and puts OTRS in jeopardy for future teachers.”

Kern contends, “It doesn’t matter whether it is two or two hundred people who are employed by these education unions or associations; the principle of the matter is that tax dollars should fund state agencies, not private ones.”

Oklahoma Treasurer Scott Meacham and House Speaker Chris Benge have both described in highly critical terms shortfalls in the teacher system and other state government retirement and pension programs.

Ginger Tinney of Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) criticized a status quo which allows labor union officials to remain in the government retirement system. Tinney told CapitolBeatOK, “HB 3108 is at rest for now, but it is not dead yet. After financial experts conducted several studies to determine how the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System (OTRS) is affected by private businesses’ participation, conflicting results have led to the conclusion that the issue needs more research.”

She added, “Professional Oklahoma Educators still believes it is wrong for private businesses to participate in the teachers’ retirement system, especially since this allows OEA officers to count their service to the union as years of teaching experience. This is a slap in the face to teachers who do the hard work of educating students day in and day out.”

Oklahoma is not the only state facing such issues. The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week defeat of a measure designed to prohibit public school districts form paying union officials while they are on leave from the classroom. Advocates of the bill had said it was wrong for taxpayer dollars to be used to finance union activities.

According to the Institute for Truth in Accounting, Oklahoma’s unfunded debt burden is $14,600 per family.