3Qs: Bill Benson, Lee County chancery clerk, chair of PERS board

By NEMS Daily Journal

Gov. Haley Barbour has formed a special commission on the state’s Public Employee Retirement System. For several years, Barbour has voiced concern that public funds make up too much of the revenue for the system that provides retirement benefits for state employees, public school personnel and county and city employees. As of June 2010, PERS had an unfunded accrued liability of $11.26 billion. Barbour selected Lee County Chancery Clerk Bill Benson, the chair of the PERS Board of Trustees, to serve on the commission. It is assigned to submit recommendations to the Legislature by mid-November. Benson answered questions from the Daily Journal’s Bobby Harrison.
Q. Do you think the commission is serving a purpose? Has it been productive thus far?
A. I think that any opportunity to review how our government works serves a purpose. As long as there are no preconceived ideas, a review of the system can show its strengths as well as any problems that might need to be addressed. We are in the preliminary stages, so I would say that it has been productive in that many of the members of the commission were not familiar with PERS and have gotten a crash course on how the system actually works.

Q. What’s next for the Commission?
A. Our next step is to hold a public comment period Wednesday, Sept. 14, at the Capitol in order to hear from the general public including members of the system. It is extremely important that this commission hear the concerns of the public. These comments will be very important in pointing out areas that should be preserved or if there are any changes necessary. The commission has also requested that Gov. Barbour contract with Gabriel, Roeder, Smith and Company to perform actuarial services for the study.
Q. Are you confident any of the commission’s recommendations will be put in place by the Legislature?
A. There are members of the Legislature, including Sen. Hob Bryan of Amory and Rep. Preston Sullivan of Okolona, who are non-voting members of the commission. These legislators are active participants in the study. They are very much in tune with the concerns of the retirees, employees and the taxpayers. Until we see the recommendations, it will be impossible to predict any legislative outcome. My belief is that we will find that we have a system that has some current funding issues as a result of past actions and a tough economic climate, but a system that is sustainable on a long-term basis.