Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Teacher pension spending studied

Options include a private audit

By Jordan Gentile
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Lawmakers looking to improve the state's troubled teacher pension system are weighing a proposal that would give an independent group new power to examine how retirement money is spent and invested.

The State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio has been in hot water with teachers and lawmakers since it was discovered that the organization spent more than $800,000 on artwork and gave employees $14 million in bonuses while the pension funds they oversaw lost more than $12 billion in value.

The Ohio Retirement Study Council, a group that includes lawmakers, the state auditor, attorney general and retirement officials, will meet this morning to discuss reforms. State Rep. Michelle Schneider, R-Madeira, a council member, said something must be done to control wasteful spending.

"They're like kids in a candy store," said Schneider, sponsor of the independent audit proposal. The pension system "has created a lifestyle for its employees contrary to anything these teachers will ever see - and it's their money."

A private auditing firm, Independent Fiduciary Services, Inc., has been invited to the meeting to tell the council how to conduct performance audits of state-managed pensions, which would be a regular requirement under Schneider's proposal.

The Ohio Retirement Study Council may be the organization tapped to conduct these reviews, Schneider said. The council studies proposals that would affect the state's pension systems.

Although the details have yet to be hammered out, the bill would most likely require an audit of the retirement system's management practices, including how it spends money on salaries. It may also review investment decisions.

Findings could then be reported to both the General Assembly and the board that controls the pensions.

"This provides a view of overall performance," said State Sen. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, who plans to sponsor the legislation in the Senate. "It will dig much deeper, and it will uncover inefficiencies that have gone previously unnoticed."

Schneider plans to take the issue up with Gov. Bob Taft after the council meeting today.

The governor recently vetoed a similar plan that would have given the state inspector general greater oversight of state pensions. In his veto message to the legislature, Taft said the study council already has the power to investigate the state's pension systems.

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