Senate vote could end special treatment for elected officials

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published 08-Mar-2011

The full Senate has voted 42-2 to end a long-standing retirement formula that enables elected officials in Oklahoma to receive twice the retirement benefit as state employees.  Sen. Mike Mazzei is principal author of Senate Bill 794. 

“At a time when we’re downsizing government because of less revenue and tighter budgets, we need to send a message to the voters that the days of special treatment for elected officials are coming to an end,” said Mazzei, a Tulsa Republican.

Mazzei is chair of the Senate Select Committee on Pensions charged with recommending reforms to address the state’s $16 billion unfunded liability in its retirement systems.

Last week the panel met to hear about several challenges facing the government pension and retirement plans, including the decision of Moody’s Investors Service to begin including unfunded pension liabilities in assessing the bonding capacity of state governments.

A January 26, 2011 report from the service included these sobering words: “Our credit analysis has long focused on states’ net tax-supported debt, while also looking separately at pension funded ratios to assess the relative risk implied in states’ long-term liabilities. As part of our ongoing efforts to provide increased transparency, and in view of prospects for sluggish economic growth and slow revenue recovery among U.S. states, this report provides figures that combine unfunded pension liabilities with outstanding bonds when evaluating the leverage position of state governments.”

The analysis shifted Oklahoma into the weakest 15 states in three of four important “metrics,” and put Oklahoma at 21st place in another.

In a News9 segment last Saturday (March 5), reporter Alex Cameron and CapitolBeatOK editor dissected the implications of the Moody’s report.

Although the Oklahoma Constitution makes it impossible for the legislature to vote to change their salary, they do have the power to statutorily change retirement benefits for specific groups.

“Shockingly, somewhere in the history of Oklahoma politics, legislators created an extra, souped-up benefit for themselves inside the Oklahoma Public Employee Retirement System.  This bill would make sure future elected officials have the same retirement benefits that all other government employees have,” Mazzei said.

S.B. 794 would realign benefits for future members of the legislature, statewide elected officials and elected officials at the county level who opt to participate in OPERS.

The measure now moves to the House of Representative for further consideration.

Mazzei has previously announced the objectives of the Select Committee he chairs:
• Reduce Oklahoma’s unfunded pension liability
• Avoid the risk of a massive tax hike
• Avoid budget cuts to pay for unfunded liabilities
• Propose reforms that establish a stable, long-term pension model for Oklahoma.

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