Wisconsin Reporter | Wisconsin eyes wide shut on personal pension data

Findings from TUA’s pension projects on Illinois and Wisconsin are featured in this story from the Wisconsin Reporter.

WisconsinReporterBy M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – Boy, that med school can really pay off.

Take Dr. Tapas K. Das Gupta, department head and chief of service at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Das Gupta tops the latest list of highest pension earners in Illinois, pulling down $439,672 in his last annual pension payment, according to Taxpayers United of America, one of the largest taxpayer advocates in the nation. The doctor expects to pocket $5.2 million in lifetime pension payments, according to TUA’s study ranking the top 200 government pensions in the Land of Lincoln.

Also on the list is Larry K. Fleming, a Lincolnshire-Prairie View School District 103 retiree at age 55 who banked a $258,163 pension payout last year. He stands to pull in nearly $12 million over a normal pension lifetime, according to the report.

Of course you can know the top 200 Illinois public pension earners all bring in more than $189,000 a year. That information is available to you because, despite a woeful public retirement system burdened by at least $90 billion in unfunded pensions liabilities, Illinois at the very least is transparent about its misery.

While Wisconsin arguably has one of the best funded defined benefit systems in government – although in real market value that may be like comparing a Dodge Neon to a Ford Pinto – the Badger State makes personal pension information off limits to the public. And that, of course, includes the state taxpayers who foot the bill for the $80 billion-plus Wisconsin Retirement System.

“Even in a state as corrupt as Illinois we can ask for individual pension information, and we did get in a timely basis,” said Jim Tobin, founder and president of Chicago-based Taxpayers United of America.

Wisconsin has codified pension privacy.

It’s all spelled out under Wisconsin Administrative Code ETF 10.70, defining “individual personal information.” Personal pension information is considered confidential under Wisconsin Statute 40.07, and is “never a public record.”

“Individual personal information is all information in any individual record of the department, including but not limited to the date of birth, earnings, contributions, interest credits, beneficiary designations, creditable service, marital or domestic partnership status, address, and social security number,” the statute states.

Information included in statistical reports and retirement system summaries in which “individual identification is not possible” is a matter of public record.

The state Department of Employee Trust Funds also is specifically prohibited from releasing lists of annuitants “except as required for the proper administration of the Department,” the law states. In other words, the names and the numbers associated with them aren’t anybody’s business outside the agency.

Rae Ann McNeilly, executive director of Taxpayers United of America, says Wisconsin hides behind its privacy statute. But it’s not alone. McNeilly said she has analyzed government pensions in 19 states and a little more than half don’t release pension-holder names and amounts.

“This isn’t just a Wisconsin problem. This is a national problem,” the pension expert said. “That’s part of the reason pension systems are able to get into so much trouble, because of a lack of transparency.” Unfunded government pension liabilities is estimated to run in the trillions of dollars.

While unions and some privacy advocates have argued such information should be kept out of the public eye, organizations such as TUA say knowing who earns what in publicly funded retirement systems is the right of the taxpayers who pay for them.

“Many pension funds stand behind the aggregate information as being transparent, but the dirt is in the details,” McNeilly said.

Case in point, Colorado, where state Treasurer Walker Stapleton was denied access when he wanted to evaluate a pension fund’s long-term viability. Stapleton, who, by law, sits on the 15-member Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association board which oversees a $39 billion pension fund, sued the board and lost.

Colorado and Wisconsin are among 18 states that keep some – or all – public pension information secret, according to Colorado Watchdog.org, one of Wisconsin Reporter’s sister bureaus.

Wisconsin Reporter on Tuesday attempted to contact several state lawmakers asking why Wisconsin keeps pension information private while so many other states shine a light. None responded to the question as of this post.

The lock on personal pension data hasn’t kept Taxpayers United of America from putting together estimates on individual pension payouts in Wisconsin.

“It is our belief that people relate to numbers when they see a name and the annual amounts they receive,” McNeilly said.

TUA’s latest report tracks the top 100 government salaries and pensions in Milwaukee. The report showed the highest paid Milwaukee city employee in 2010 was Kenneth Grams, a police lieutenant who earned total pay of $174,154. Grams total pension payout is expected to approach $3 million, in accordance with the IRS life-expectancy table.

McNeilly cautioned the pension numbers are estimates, based on salary information, which is public in Wisconsin, and the pension payout formula in the state. TUA plans to disclose updated salary and pension data for public employees in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay and Shawano, and their respective counties, sometime this summer.

The Department of Employee Trust Funds expects to disclose its latest Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, covering 2011, by the end of next month. Agency spokesman Mark Lamkins said the 2012 report is slated for release in late fall. Changes in the state’s collective bargaining laws delayed release of the reports, Lamkins said.

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