Court shouldn’t hide pension information

New York state taxpayers spend billions each year on pensions for workers on public payrolls. They need and deserve plenty of public accountability for that.

A case that will be heard this month in the New York State Court of Appeals will hear a case that could make it harder for the press or any interested private citizen to investigate possible waste, fraud and abuse in the pension system. The case originated in 2012, when the Empire Center for New York State Policy sued the state Teachers’ Retirement System in 2012 after the system in 2011 would no longer release the names of teachers receiving taxpayer-funded pensions. The teachers’ decision came after a state appeals court ruled in October 2011 a New York City police pension fund was not public.

Court briefs filed by the Public Employees Federation and New York State United Teachers argue analysis of pension data can be done without the names of the retirees and that privacy interests for retirees outweigh the public’s benefit to having the information available.

Both union arguments are wrong.

Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy in 2013 is a cautionary tale of the need to closely monitor public pension funds and the consequences of not doing so. Having names of pensioners available in the past has led to exposure of fraud and waste in government pension systems, the revelation of which has resulted in constructive public dialogue and change to the ways in which pensions are administered.

Having full public disclosure of pension data is essential given the budget issues faced at every level of government in New York state. Without the collection and analysis of pensioner names, the public would be unable to uncover corruption related to pension funds, oversee the use of such funds and perform year-to-year comparisons of data. Previous appellate court rulings in the Empire Center case draw a curtain over details of how pension funds paid for by billions of dollars of taxpayer money are spent. Keeping that curtain drawn thwarts the Freedom of Information Act’s mission to expand the public’s access to government records and only makes it harder to identify and expose waste, negligence and abuse.

What’s more, unions have an avenue to keep pensioners’ names private by simply switching to defined benefit, 401(k) retirement plans. Of course, defined benefit plans are much more friendly to workers, which is why most private companies phased them out long ago and why public sector unions cling to them so dearly at a great cost to taxpayers.

The state Court of Appeals should overturn the flawed Appellate Division rulings and keep the public’s information free and open.