The subsidized Hawaii trip is off for School Employees Retirement System trustees Barbra Phillips and Catherine Moss, who bowed to lawmaker and public pressure Tuesday and rescinded their requests for travel reimbursement for a May conference in Honolulu.
Phillips and Moss both sent emails to SERS executives on Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review recommended that the pension fund’s travel reimbursement rule be invalidated by the General Assembly.
Word of their decision reached JCARR Chairman Ross McGregor, R-Springfield, just in time: the Ohio House was scheduled to vote on the rule invalidation at its 11 a.m. session but pulled back once lawmakers learned the trustees no longer wanted SERS to pay for the trip.
Phillips and Moss’ insistence on traveling to Hawaii for the NCPERS annual conference triggered pushback: 250 retirees and members called or wrote to say they opposed the trip; the School Employees Retirement Organization began collecting petition signatures to oppose it; the Ohio Retirement Study Council strongly urged them to cancel the trip; state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, R-Napoleon, advised them to cancel; SERS Director Lisa Morris warned that going to Hawaii could raise public relations problems; long-time pension lobbyist Fred Mills said their insistence on going risked damaging SERS’ relationship with the General Assembly; and news media across the state detailed the cost of their travel.
But none of this led Phillips and Moss to back down.
Finally, lawmakers turned to JCARR, a little-known but powerful state agency that holds sway over what government rules and regulations are in place. SERS, one of five public pension systems in Ohio, needed JCARR approval of a rule governing travel reimbursement. JCARR, instead, recommended that the reimbursement rule be invalidated. This would have meant none of the 173 SERS employees or nine trustees would have been able to be reimbursed for travel expenses between now and January 2015.
SERS spokesman Tim Barbour said trustees were told of the JCARR action and its ramifications on Monday and by Tuesday, Moss and Phillips sent notice: “Please be advised that we are rescinding our SERS travel reimbursement request to attend the NCPERS Annual Conference scheduled for this May 2013 in Hawaii.”
Barbour said reservations at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort have been canceled and NCPERS agreed to apply $1,800 of the $2,000 in registration fees toward another conference at a later date.
Meanwhile, Moss and Phillips have offered to pay for their $820 per person airfare, rather than ask SERS to absorb any cancellation costs. Moss and Phillips did not immediately return messages seeking comment or to say whether they plan to fly to Hawaii for a personal trip.
Phillips’ flight reservations are for May 17-24; Moss’ itinerary was May 17 to June 1. The conference runs May 18-23.
A third trustee cancelled her plan to attend the conference due to health reasons. Her $882 flight is non-refundable, Barbour said.
Our Columbus bureau reporters first reported on the controversial Hawaii trip planned by the School Employees Retirement System board in early March and have stayed on the story ever since. 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