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Published: Tuesday, 8/10/2010

More light on pensions

OHIO taxpayers contribute $4 billion a year to the state's five public employee pension funds - about $346 per resident. Two of these funds, which represent retired teachers and school administrators, police officers, and firefighters, want millions more in tax dollars to remain solvent.

But ask the five plans for data that would suggest trends - and possible problems - in the pension systems, and you'll get a prompt and uniform response: None of your business.

It isn't that way in nearly half the other states. It shouldn't be that way in Ohio. Before Columbus makes changes to the pension systems that could increase their cost to taxpayers, such unwarranted secrecy must end.

As part of their joint investigation of state pension funds, Ohio's eight largest newspapers, including The Blade, asked the plans for data on retirement benefits and contributions. The papers made clear they were seeking only aggregate information - nothing that would identify any individual among the 400,000 recipients of state pensions.

No dice. Officials of the plans insisted that even with individual names and addresses withheld, the information the papers sought would violate their members' privacy.

Previous reports in the series disclosed that higher pension expenses for state retirees could cost Ohio taxpayers another $768 million by 2013. The newspapers found that more than one-fourth of public school superintendents are collecting a current salary and a pension at the same time.

Such "double dipping" among all state and local employees cost more than $1 billion in pension payouts last year. In other cases, the papers discovered recipients gaming the system by manipulating the income figures on which their benefits are based.

So it may be understandable that the pension systems would prefer not to share any more information about their activities. But it isn't acceptable.

At least 21 states, including New York, Illinois, and Florida, say that the kind of information the Ohio newspapers seek is public record.

Ohio taxpayers should have the same opportunity - and right - to make informed judgments about state pension funds before lawmakers consider any further changes to the systems, and higher taxes to pay for them.

More disclosure must precede more dollars. If the pension funds can't live with the prospect of greater transparency, the response they hear from state lawmakers and their constituents should be the same one the systems are used to making: No.

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