Pensions for Pols: The retirement benefits of 16 Oklahomans

 This year the Oklahoma Legislature is considering a range of proposals to reform – or, as some observers put it, save from financial collapse – Oklahoma’s government employee pension and retirement programs.

In wake of the Great Recession, even as an economic recovery advances, the issue of pension reform is a matter of urgency to some public officials in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma has a total of six state government pension and retirement programs, with an average of 61% adequacy against anticipated liabilities. The private sector benchmark for funding is 80%,and reform efforts in both the House and Senate have aimed at pressing all of the systems toward that level.

In recent weeks, a CapitolBeatOK investigation has focused on the state government retirement incomes of a group of former elected officials (in both statewide and legislative positions). The retirement benefit for each person in this group is well beyond the annual income of typical Oklahomans.

Analysis of these retirement benefits included years of service, final employer, personal contribution toward retirement, and annual benefit amount.

Of the former state elected officials included in CapitolBeatOK’s analysis, former Auditor & Inspector Clifton Scott has the largest annual pension. Scott’s 2010 benefit amount was $157,488.

Scott was 73 years old last year. He retired from the auditor’s office in 2003 at the age of 65, having contributed $106,989 toward his retirement benefits during a 45-year career. Scott is one of a handful of officials who have, since retirement, secured other employment in state government. Until last year, he was administrator of the School Lands office, a post he assumed after leaving the auditor’s office.

Former state Sen. Gene Stipe drew a state retirement income of $94,602 in 2010, when he was 84 years old. He retired from the Senate in 2003 at the age of 77. Stipe’s contribution toward his benefits was $72,370 in the 31 years counted toward his benefits.

Former Sen. Gilmer Capps’ 2010 benefit was $76,613. He contributed $83,511 toward his benefits in 36 years. Capps, who was 79 last year, retired from the Senate in 2006 at the age of 75.

Former state Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson’s 2010 benefit was $77,327. During a 33-year career, Hobson paid $79,938 into his benefits account. He retired from the Senate in 2006 at the age of 62, and was 66 years old in 2010.

However, like Scott (who is now fully retired), Hobson went on to other state employment. He now works for the Higher Education system, and last year earned $146,921 as an assistant administrator at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Another former state senator in the upper ranks of state retirement income is Herb Rozell, whose 2010 pension income was $71,644. Rozell paid in $77,228 in 32 years. Rozell left the Senate in 2004, at the age of 73. He was 79 in the year studied for this story.

Rozell attracted nationwide attention earlier this year in connection with his present role as a member of the state Board of Education. He challenged the usefulness of a pregnant woman on the staff of Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.

Former state Senator Charles Ford of Tulsa, one of a few Republicans among the former state elected officials falling into the upper end of the retirement data CapitolBeatOK obtained and examined, garnered $64,320 in pension pay last year. He contributed $78,064 over 38 years, before retiring from the Senate.

Another former President Pro Tempore, Stratton Taylor of Claremore, was paid $64,050 from the pension fund last year. In his career, he paid in $118,574 over 29 years. He was 55 years old last year, and retired from the Senate in 2007 at the age of 52.

The former two-term governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, also served in the state Senate for many years early in his career, including time as the minority leader of the upper chamber. Keating garnered $64,293 in retirement income last year, after a 17-year career contribution of $73,803 into the system. He is designated in the system as retired from the governor’s office.

Former state Rep. Larry D. Roberts was paid $61,231 in state retirement in 2010, after career contributions of $65,897 over 36 years before leaving the House.

Denver S. Talley retired from the Oklahoma House in 1990, at the age of 52. He was 72 years old last year. He drew $59,114 retirement income, after having paid in $32,703 during his years in elective office, for 33 years of pay-in.

Former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Loyd Benson was 71 last year. He left the House in 2002, at the age of 63. Benson paid in $62,126 toward his retirement in 21 years, and has an annual retirement benefit of $53,652.

Former Speaker of the House Larry Adair is also in the data CapitolBeatOK has analyzed. His 2010 retirement income was $51,650, based on 24 years of service. He retired from office in 2004, after having paid in a total of $74,620 in the course of his time in public life.

Speaker Adair left the House at the age of 58; he was 64 last year.

Like Scott and Hobson, Norman Lamb was still working for the state government in 2010, earning $66,672 (and $1,500 in longevity pay) as an assistant to then-Governor Brad Henry. Lamb’s annual stream of retirement income was $52,326 in 2010, after paying a total of $58,359 during his years in service. His time employed before retirement was 42 years, and the Senate is listed as his final employer.

Lamb left the Legislature in 1990 at the age of 56. He was 76 years old last year, when he served in Gov. Brad Henry’s administration.  He is now fully retired from public service.

Former state Sen. J.R. “Dick” Wilkerson in 2010 had an annual retirement income of $50,915. During his career at the Capitol, he paid in $54,493. With credit for 30 years of service, Wilkerson left office in 2004 at the age of 62.

Also with credit for 30 years of service, former state Rep. Frank W. Davis earned $50,779 in retirement during the year 2010. During his career, he paid in $70,191. Davis was 69 years old when he retired from the House in 2004; he was 75 last year.

Former state Sen. Frank D. Shurden left office at the age of 66, and was 70 in 2010. His retirement income stream was $50,462 in 2010, after a career in which he paid in $76,013 to the system and had 31 years of service credit.

Oklahoma’s elected state officials have earned generous retirement benefits for decades, including a dramatic multiplier effect in benefits compared to other public employees.

The data presented above reflects the upper end of retirement compensation for public employees in Oklahoma. To be clear, in the Oklahoma Public Employee Retirement System (OPERS), the average pension benefit is $14,877 per year.

In 2008, Senate Bill 1642 limited the multiplier certain elected officials had previously enjoyed in state retirement. As a knowledgeable state official told CapitolBeatOK this week, “The effect of that legislation will show up over the next several years and into the future.”

By no means is this policy the only example of decision-making on Oklahoma state government pension benefits detached from traditional actuarial analysis and standards. However, the status of elected state officers in retirement/pension systems has come under fresh scrutiny as the debate over reform continues.