Senate pension panel tackles $16 billion unfunded pension liability

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published 17-Feb-2011

Senator Mike Mazzei said he was encouraged by Thursday’s meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Pensions, the first for the panel.  Mazzei, who chairs the committee, said Oklahoma currently faces an unfunded liability of $16 billion in the state’s six public retirement systems.

The Senate select panel met the day after an often-contentious hearing in the House Economic Development, Tourism and Financial Services Committee resulted in passage of several bills addressing reform of the Sooner State’s pension systems, which are collectively estimated to be at only 61% of funding adequacy (with 80 percent the standard in the private sector).

Concerning today’s Senate hearing, Mazzei said, “I was very pleased by the active participation of our committee members and by other legislators as well.  There is strong bipartisan consensus about the need to turn our pension systems around. We heard expert testimony about what other states are doing to strengthen their systems, as well as information on how those alternatives might or might not work for Oklahoma.”

Mazzei, a Tulsa Republican, said the worst thing that could happen right now is for the state to do nothing and that it was urgent for lawmakers to work together to find solutions. Failing to decrease the unfunded liability could impact the state in numerous ways.

“Failing to act would most certainly result in higher costs on our bond issues, but as we’ve seen elsewhere, Oklahoma could be forced to make unprecedented cuts in services and enact massive tax hikes.  We cannot and will not allow that to happen.”

Mazzei’s panel apparently enjoys the strong support of Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, who has described Oklahoma’s public pension problems as “nightmarish.”

Those testifying to the committee Thursday included Ron Snell, Senior Fellow, State Services Division, National Conference of State Legislatures; David Blatt, Director, Oklahoma Policy Institute; Jonathan Small, Fiscal Policy Director, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs; and Dr. James Wilbanks, Executive Director, Teachers’ Retirement System of Oklahoma.  Mazzei said additional meetings will be held in the coming weeks.

“Our goals are two-fold—to secure the expected retirements of our hardworking Oklahoma teachers, police, firefighters and government employees, and also to find ways to make this more efficient for the taxpayers so we can save multiple billions of dollars over the next 10 to 20 years.”

NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.