As state courts across the nation prepare to referee numerous public pension reform disputes, a gaggle of interested parties — from major corporations to the Koch brothers — will next week sponsor an expenses-paid conference on public pension reform for judges who may decide the cases’ fates.
Conference funders, which include ExxonMobil, Google and Wal-Mart, could benefit from efforts to slash benefits for public employees. Alternative approaches to shore up state budgets would likely require higher corporate taxes, fewer corporate subsidies and reduced government services, all of which would be bad for business.
The three-day gathering in a Charleston, S.C., hotel is hosted by George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center.
The “Judicial Symposium on the Economics and Law of Public Pension Reform,” according to a George Mason event description, is intended to “comprehensively outline the underlying structure of pension systems, address the differences between public and private pensions and detail the unfunded liabilities and potential bankruptcy issues arising from this crisis.”
In all, about three dozen corporations — Ford Motor Co., General Electric Co., ConocoPhillips, drug maker Pfizer and the Dow Chemical Company also among them — are sponsoring the conference. Other funders include trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and conservative foundations such as the John William Pope Foundation and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.
Dozens of individuals are also helping bankroll the gathering; some state and federal judges themselves are listed sponsors, including Utah Judge Samuel D. McVey and Harris L. Hartz of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
It’s unclear which judges — and how many of them — will be attending the conference, although George Mason’s judicial seminars are traditionally open to both state and federal judges. George Mason does not publicly list conference attendees, and federal judges who attend privately funded educational seminars aren’t required to publicly disclose which conference they attended until 30 days after it ends.
Henry Butler, executive director of the Law & Economics Center, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Washington Post recently reported that conference funders provide more than just financial support — they also help coordinate who attends the influential seminars.
What is clear from the conference’s agenda is that attending judges will spend most of their time inside Charleston, S.C.’s Francis Marion Hotel listening to lectures and panel discussions led mainly by advocates of public pension reform. Bill Lurye, general counsel of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, stands out as one of the only panelists offering a union perspective on the pension debate.
Two of the conference’s featured lecturers — Todd Zywicki, a George Mason University law professor, and Eileen Norcross, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s conservative Mercatus Center — co-wrote a 2010 op-ed headlined “How public worker pensions are too rich for New York’s — and America’s — blood.” The column decried unions’ efforts to thwart pension reform efforts.
“No one begrudges a secure retirement for police officers, firefighters and other public servants,” the authors wrote. “But unless states act now by closing insolvent plans to new hires and reducing the rate of benefit accrual for current employees, they won’t be able to shore up enough to guarantee at least some of what’s been promised.”