One in an occasional series
AKRON - Vernon Sykes holds one of the most powerful posts in the Ohio General Assembly: chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee.
In coming months, the Akron Democrat will play a big role in making the hard choices to reform the state's financially strained pension plans, which cost Ohio taxpayers $4.1 billion a year to maintain and provide benefits for about a million government workers, retirees, and their families.
Like all Ohio lawmakers, Mr. Sykes will have a personal stake.
Every one of Ohio's 132 legislators belongs to the Public Employees Retirement System and stands to benefit from keeping the fund solvent - and to lose if benefits are cut or required service time is increased.
But many legislators have ties to the state's five public pension systems beyond the normal PERS benefit offered for service as lawmakers.
Mr. Sykes is a telling - but far from unusual - example of the webs of personal and family connections between Ohio lawmakers and the pension plans.
Mr. Sykes said his personal involvement doesn't affect his judgment. But he admits others might have doubts, saying, "It's hard for my opinion to be considered objective."
In northwest Ohio, four legislators draw state pensions plus their lawmaker salaries: Edna Brown (D., Toledo), Bruce Goodwin (R., Defiance), Clifford Hite (R., Findlay), and Jeffrey McClain (R., Upper Sandusky). None could be reached for comment on the subject yesterday.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sykes, a Kent State University assistant professor who began his college teaching career nearly 30 years ago, contributes to a second pension with the State Teachers Retirement System.
Again, he isn't alone: 15 legislators - eight House members and seven senators - are listed as STRS members because they have worked for public schools or a state college or university.
The multiple links don't stop there.
For Mr. Sykes and many legislators, the ties to the public pension funds are a family affair.
His wife, Barbara, a career government worker who held the 44th District House seat from 2000 to 2006, receives a PERS pension. They have a daughter, a law student, who paid into PERS while working as a student at Kent State. An older daughter is in PERS as a University of Akron employee.
An Ohio Newspaper Organization study of mailing lists kept by three of the five pension funds found spouses, children, or other household members of 54 legislators among the 1.5 million records. Counting retirees, the study found nearly half the lawmakers have multiple ties to the pension systems.
The numbers cross party lines: 33 of 65 Democrats and 32 of 67 Republicans.
The list may be incomplete because data are unavailable from two state pension funds, representing police, firefighters, and the Ohio Highway Patrol.
The newspapers sent a survey to each lawmaker Oct. 1 seeking information about his or her pension memberships and the number of immediate relatives - children, spouses, and parents - who participate in a state pension plan.
The legislative leadership, speaking for its members, declined to answer.
A joint letter from Republican Senate President Bill Harris and Minority Leader Capri Cafaro, and House Speaker Armond Budish and Republican Minority Leader William Batchelder said they have not had a chance to hold hearings on proposed changes.
They have had a proposal from the pension funds for more than a year but said to comment without analysis "does not lend itself to a thoughtful process. Candidly, all you will get are sound bites and politically correct answers just weeks before a major general election."
Mr. Batchelder, of Medina, dismissed concerns of conflict. He is the legislature's largest "double dipper," getting more than $100,000 in benefits in 2009 from PERS, along with his $86,000 House leadership pay. "I'm not going to deal with that at all," he said in an interview. "Apparently, the legislative function has escaped you. I vote for traffic laws. I vote for real-estate laws that affect me. I'm not going to get into it."
Ohio is not alone in needing changes after the 2008 stock market crash wiped out about a third of pension assets. Even before the crash, a study by the Pew Center on the States showed pension funds nationwide had to spend $1 trillion more than they could provide, often because the benefits of retirement at an early age with health care weren't supported by contributions.
All five Ohio pension funds sought legislative approval last year for changes in how they pay for their plans and pay out benefits.
STRS and the Ohio Police & Fire Pension Fund are asking for greater contributions from taxpayers, estimated at $400 million a year.
Ohio lawmakers are facing distinctly different interest groups as they look for solutions: financially struggling private-sector workers who would be asked to shore up public pensions at the same time they are losing their own pensions, and the more than 700,000 local and state employees and nearly 400,000 public-sector retirees. Government workers and retirees represent a potent political force at the ballot box. State and local governments employ nearly one of every seven Ohioans collecting a paycheck.
The third group is seldom discussed: lawmakers and their families.
Ohio's eight largest newspapers, including The Blade, have collaborated for a year to examine the pension funds because the issues are complex and significant public dollars are at stake.
The newspapers sought individual records, minus personal identifiers, of all members, but the funds denied the requests, saying the law prevented them. However, PERS, STRS, and the School Employees Retirement System provided names and addresses of two groups: those paying into the systems and those collecting benefits.
Those records allowed the papers to identify lawmakers who are drawing pensions or are in multiple plans, and to find that about half had at least one other person living at home who is paying into or collecting from a state pension fund.
Legislators write the laws regarding pension funds, and in 1965 and 1976, the legislature sealed individual records from public review, allowing only the release of names and addresses. Police, fire, and highway patrol funds are not permitted to release addresses.
The limited access makes it difficult to know how many lawmakers are in other pension funds, their years of service, pay history, and contributions made on their behalf by taxpayers.
PERS is not asking for more taxpayer contributions, but legislators can be directly affected by proposals to boost the retirement age and experience needed for various benefit levels.
STRS and Police & Fire want the legislature to approve significant changes to their plans that would cost taxpayers more money and alter retirement benefits, affecting many lawmakers and their families.
None of the recommendations addresses the ability to work and also collect retirement, a practice known as "double dipping."
Finally, almost every proposal is subject to "grandfathering" language, which determines who would be exempt from any cut in benefits.
PERS would not say how many legislators would be exempt from its proposed changes, citing the same privacy laws it used in denying the newspapers' larger request.
Lawmakers also write the rules on transparency and legislative ethics.
Each one must file an annual disclosure statement showing sources of income and the dollar range. (The forms are available at http://www.jlec-olig.state.oh.us)