Open government doesn’t apply to Wis. pension recipient payouts

MADISON – Wisconsin boasts the best state retirement pension system in the country. State figures show the plan holds more than $90 billion in trust.

But specifics on the amounts paid out to individuals is not something the Wisconsin Retirement System chooses to share.

Some 250,000 school teachers, state workers, and city and county municipal employees pay into the fund. Their employers with taxpayer dollars contribute too. Overall employer contribution last year was 60 percent of the total, since some state employees aren’t required to contribute under Act 10.

Robert Conlin heads up the state’s Department of Employee Trust Funds.

“The system is solid and sound and there’s no need for major changes,” said Conlin, citing a study of the system released in 2012.

The state trust fund paid out roughly $4 billion to pension recipients last year. That information is released by the state. What is not released are the individual names of the pension recipients and just how much each of them received.

“The state won’t give us the pension names and pension amounts. They’re hiding that from the taxpayers,” said Jim Tobin, who heads up the watchdog group Taxpayers United of America.

Tobin calling for more transparent government in states across the country. He says he’s standing up on behalf of the taxpayers.

“And we suspect maybe because the pensions being paid out to the retirees are huge amounts,” added Tobin, speculating on the lack of full disclosure on the pension funds.

Taxpayers United of America routinely posts projected pension payouts for the highest paid public employees on its website and elsewhere. The group plans to release figures soon for Shawano County workers.

The latest release though targets taxpayer funded employees in Brown County.

The name topping the Brown County School Employees list is Green Bay schools superintendent Michelle Langenfeld. She is paid $190,000 a year.

With access only to her salary, Taxpayers United of America calculated her retirement pension at $159,000 a year. Assuming Langenfled receives that payout for 21 years of retirement, the group shows Langenfeld’s total payout of more than $3 million.

Such figures, Tobin says would put an extra toll on state taxpayers.

“No we can’t keep funding this unless taxpayers want to work into their 80s and 90s. I don’t think taxpayers will put up with that,” said Tobin.

But FOX11 Investigates questioned the numbers published by Taxpayers United of America, and found the pension for Langenfeld way off.

TUA’s calculation assumes she worked in Wisconsin for 41 years when in reality it’s been less than 3. She’s not even vested yet. Langenfeld previously worked in Minnesota.

And if Langenfeld were to retire at the end of this school year, based on salary and actual years of employment, we calculate she would receive just $7,000 a year in Wisconsin retirement benefits. Her 21-year payout during retirement would be closer to just $150,000, well short of the $3 million estimate from Taxpayers United of America.

“Those assumptions have to be made because we’re not provided with any personal information,” said Rae Ann McNeilly, executive director for TUA. “It does give a good indication of what the system allows if she did meet all of the criteria for retirement.”

A FOX 11 Fact Check shows the average annuity received by all 178,000 retirees in 2012 was about $24,000. Just 50 retirees received more than $150,000 while more than 47,000 received less than $9,999.

Secretary Conlin says if something doesn’t add up it’s TUA’s agenda.

“I think some of those groups have more of an interest in stirring up perhaps some discord between the public and public employees,” said Conlin.

But if state pension amounts for individual workers were made public there would be no confusion.

Wisconsin however is one of 17 states across the country to keep that information private. That’s what Taxpayers United of America is really trying to change. And in the era of government openness I raised the issue with Conlin.

“When it comes to pensions we don’t know the figures. Why not?” asked reporter Mark Leland.

“The simplest reason is there’s a law that says that personal information in our files are confidential,” explained Conlin.

Conlin says the money in the retirement fund belongs to the retirees and, like anyone’s investment portfolio, shouldn’t be open to public inspection. To do so, the legislature would have to change the law.

Is that something that should be more transparent?

“I think that would probably be a good idea, personally,” said State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield. “Salaries are online, it makes sense to equate that to public pensions. I don’t know why that isn’t out there already.”

Kooyenga is a member of the Assembly Finance Committee and has a background as a certified public accountant. And says the system should have nothing to hide when it comes to the amounts individual retirees receive.

“I don’t know if it’s a cost issue, a privacy issue, who’s for or against it, but I think it’s definitely something we should consider and look into,” said Kooyenga.

Kooyenga does admit with the pension fund 100 percent funded, other issues like cutting taxes and creating jobs remain the legislature’s top priority. But we will continue to raise the question of open government so no one is left in the dark.

Click to read the study of the Wisconsin Retirement System.

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