Public Participation = Pension Disinfectant
Arizona Republic – “In the end, it isn’t only taxpayers who deserve straight answers, but current and future public pensioners as well.”
Good or bad, news on public pensions is a necessity
Being a bad-news messenger is not easy. Just ask reporter Craig Harris.
Harris has written about difficulties faced by Arizona’s public-employee pension plans since fall 2010, beating most of the national journalism pack out of the gate on one of the most important ongoing stories of the decade.
It has already played out in cities like Detroit; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Central Falls, R.I.; where the inability to bring soaring public-employee pension costs under control helped force municipal governments into bankruptcy.
A number of other U.S. cities, from Chicago to Phoenix, now face similar, albeit not so dire, difficulties. And several state systems, notably those in California and Arizona, are substantially underfunded and drawing ever larger sums from the public treasury to maintain stability.
Harris’ first series on pension problems in Arizona was published in fall 2010. The gist of the eight-part series was that overly generous public pensions were costing taxpayers millions and were likely to get into financial trouble. He took a lot of flak for that series from pension-fund members and from state and local officials who perceived it to be an attack on public employees.
It was not. It was a warning based on informed reporting and a careful eye on national trends. Astute observers saw the looming public-pension crisis on the horizon, and The Arizona Republic saw value in examining their forecasts and asking tough questions in Arizona.
Harris and a colleague, Beth Duckett, researched and authored a second series in May 2013 focusing on public-safety pension funds and the dire straits some Arizona communities, such as Phoenix, find themselves in: They can’t afford to hire new cops because their public-safety retirement costs are too onerous.
Between series, Harris has worked with colleagues to spotlight ongoing developments in Arizona’s public-pension systems and efforts to stabilize them. He and reporter Dustin Gardiner, who covers Phoenix City Hall, no doubt have caused ulcers for city officials, pension administrators and many city employees because they write without fear about pension policies that cost taxpayers and put the entire system at risk of failure.
To public employees who find fault with this kind of government accountability reporting, we pose this question: Would they be better served if we waited until the systems are on the financial brink to raise questions?
The Phoenix police union, once one of Harris’ strongest detractors, has come around to the view that maybe he was right about some things after all. His reporting on allegations of irregularities within the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System prompted a former union head to ask for an FBI investigation. And guess what? Police and fire associations recently talked to Harris about a reform proposal they would like on the fall ballot to bring a measure of sanity to pensions — and to stave off more draconian measures contemplated by others.
Harris has fought tirelessly for records to bring these matters to light, often at substantial expense to this newspaper. It is a battle worth fighting. In the end, it isn’t only taxpayers who deserve straight answers, but current and future public pensioners as well. We all have a vested interest in healthy pension plans. Just ask all those public employees in Detroit.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Pat Flannery is a senior editor overseeing a team of five reporters responsible for government accountability. He has been a Phoenix reporter and editor for 33 years.
How to reach him