Editorial: A step back for disclosure

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 29, 2008

With state Rep. Thomas E. Wright (D-Wilmington) facing charges of fraud and obstruction that could remove him from office and put him in prison, the Star-News of Wilmington sought the answer to a routine question: How much would Wright’s state pension be if he were to leave office this year?
That’s information taxpayers have a right to know, and it should be a routine matter to obtain it. But to the surprise of the Star-News and many others, including some legislators, the newspaper couldn’t get the answer. A little-noticed change made in state law last year now prohibits the State Treasurer’s Office from releasing pension information that previously was readily available. For instance, when former House Speaker Jim Black was convicted on corruption charges, taxpayers learned Black would still qualify for up to $41,330 a year from his legislative pension. In fact, it was largely because of public outrage over Black’s ability to draw taxpayer-funded benefits that the legislature passed a law requiring state and local elected officials to forfeit their pensions if convicted of felony corruption or election law crimes. (Those vested before the law took effect on July 1, 2007, as in Black’s and Wright’s case, would keep benefits accrued up to that date; officials vested after that date forfeit all pension benefits.)
So why did the legislature decide that taxpayers should no longer have access to pension amounts, even though they’re paying for them? That’s a legislative mystery. The change came about because of a provision added to Senate Bill 1546, which was initially conceived to give the media and the public more ó not less ó access to the compensation of public officials. State Sen. David Hoyle filed SB 1546 after Carolinas Healthcare System refused to disclose compensation information for its higher executives. However, Doyle said he didn’t make the state pension change and never intended to keep retiree benefits secret. State Treasurer Richard Moore, who’s also running for governor, said his office didn’t seek the change and wasn’t in favor of it. But somewhere, somehow, before the bill cleared the Senate, the change occurred, and the full Senate OK’d it.
You can decide which is more worrisome ó the public being denied access to how pension money is being dispersed, or lawmakers being unaware of the consequences of a bill they’ve approved. It hardly inspires confidence in the legislative process when a measure designed to enhance public disclosure ends up having the opposite effect. Obviously, the Senate should correct the legislation to restore access to pension information in the upcoming session. And this time, please read the bill carefully before voting.