The pension funds: time for oversight
Sat February 7, 2009 9:58 am

For many years after I first started working in the Capitol, the major pension funds and endowments were limited to conservative investments such as stocks and bonds and government instruments. Then Wall Street began going crazy and the investment managers asked the Legislature for the authority to play in real estate and other higher-risk plays because "everybody was doing it" and making a lot of money. UTIMCO was the extreme case. They had no shackles and little or no accountability. Charles Miller resigned as a regent over UTIMCO, and that should have worried people, because he was a fund manager himself. When Patricia Hart and I interviewed Steve Ogden early in the session, he expressed his concern about UTIMCO and potential conflicts of interest and self-dealing.

I cannot recall Perry, Dewhurst, or Craddick ever indicating any concern over the condition of the pension and endowment funds. It appears to me that Straus is concerned, because he merged the Pensions & Investment committee with Financial Institutions to create a new committee, Pensions & Financial Services. That is a overdue upgrade of the pensions issue. Part of the problem with pensions is that under the Perry/Dewhurst/Craddick leadership, the Legislature basically stopped doing oversight. Republicans had no interest in investigating themselves. All these funds were run by Perry appointees. As recently as last fall, Perry, Dewhurst, and Craddick signed a letter to allow pension and endowment funds to be invested in toll roads--and Perry strong-armed the Teacher Retirement System into giving one of his former budget staffers a key position. Toll roads are a very risky investment for a pension fund. They are affected by growth patterns and by fuel costs and by political considerations that affect the route. (California has been plagued by this last issue.)

The Legislature needs to take a long look at the investment policy of the pension and endowment funds. They need to determine whether there was self-dealing and conflict of interest at UTIMCO; the degree to which the funds are employing high-risk investment strategies; and what the true condition of these funds is. Somebody needs to do for these funds what UT president Bill Powers (then dean of the law school) did when Enron collapsed: make a thorough report of what happened at these entities and determine if everything was on the up-and-up. And then the Legislature should determine whether to require the funds to adopt an investment strategy that shows more prudence when dealing with public trust funds.

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