A little known state agency on Monday took an unusual step to block trustees and employees of the School Employees Retirement System from getting reimbursed for travel expenses to Hawaii, Columbus or anywhere else for that matter.
The pension fund board has refused to cancel plans to send two trustees to a five-day NCPERS conference in Honolulu in May, despite protests from retirees and lawmakers.
When trustees refused to budge, Statehouse insiders turned to the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review, which voted 8-2 to recommend to the General Assembly that the pension fund’s travel reimbursement rule be invalidated.
It turns out, SERS missed the deadline for asking JCARR to review its reimbursement rule, didn’t attach the reimbursement form and failed to consider public input on the travel reimbursements. Essentially, the multi-billion dollar pension fund got snagged on technicalities.
“That is the world of rule filings,” said JCARR Executive Director Larry Wolpert, a former lawmaker. As far as he can tell, it’s the first invalidation in 17 years and only the 14th since JCARR was founded in 1977, Wolpert said.
The issue moves to the Ohio House for a floor vote Tuesday and then on to the Senate for consideration. If both chambers agree, the rule will be invalidated and SERS won’t be able to file for reconsideration until January 2015, Wolpert said.
SERS spokesman Tim Barbour said the rule invalidation raises a number of unanswered questions: Does the system need to get repayment for pre-paid items? Can SERS go through with travel already planned? Can trustees continue to use SERS credit cards to direct bill travel expenses? Is there anyway to carve out staff from the reimbursement black out?
SERS, which has an $11 billion portfolio, employs 173 people, who would also have no way to seek reimbursement for travel expenses. About 10 investment staffers travel out of town to investigate potential investments, Barbour said.
SERS, which represents 192,558 school bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and retirees, is second smallest of Ohio’s five public pension systems, yet over the past four years it has spent $241,391 for trustees to make 67 out-of-state trips to places such as Las Vegas, New York and Orlando. The amount spent on staff travel was not immediately available.
SERS Trustee Barbra Phillips, an Ashland City Schools bus driver who is slated to travel to Hawaii, could not immediately be reached for comment.
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Our Columbus bureau reporters first reported on the Hawaii trip planned by the School Employees Retirement System board in early March and have stayed on the story in recent weeks. We have three reporters working full-time in Columbus to bring you the latest news you need on politics, government spending and the upcoming debate over the state budget. Follow us on Twitter at @Ohio_Politics