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State Treasurer highlights lucrative retirements for public workers

Wisconsin State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk is touting a state memo that he says "exposes extremely lucrative benefits" going to a handful of former public workers in Wisconsin.

State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk is touting a state memo that he says “exposes extremely lucrative” six-figure retirement benefits for a handful of former public workers in Wisconsin.

One former public worker gets a lifelong annual retirement benefit of more than $364,000 a year, or about $1,000 a day, after retiring in 2016 at age 64, according to the memo, which Adamczyk obtained from the Department of Employee Trust Funds.

Another, who retired in 2017 at age 87, gets a lifelong annual retirement benefit of more than $750,000, according to the memo.

The department responded by saying the examples highlighted by Adamczyk are wildly atypical. At the end of 2017, the median annual pension paid by the Wisconsin Retirement System — or WRS, which serves former employees of the state and participating local governments — was $20,758.

The department administers retirement benefits for most state and local public employees in Wisconsin. It provided Adamczyk the memo in response to his request for information about the most lucrative benefits for state retirement system participants.

Adamczyk, a Republican, said everyone agrees public workers should have adequate benefits but “my concern is these outliers.”

“I think most people would look at that and say: ‘Whoa,’ ” Adamczyk said.

A statement from Department Secretary Robert Conlin said the state retirement system “is not a lottery.” Conlin noted the state retirement system “covers many public employees that earn professional salaries, like doctors, investment professionals, university faculty, lawyers and judges.”

“It should be no surprise that these folks sometimes receive commensurate pensions in retirement,” Conlin said.

“I understand the appeal of focusing on headline-inducing outliers. But there is a reason we call them outliers.”

About 0.34 percent of system retirees receive an annual pension of more than $100,000, the statement said.

The retirees whose benefits are profiled in the memo are not named in it, nor are their job titles.

Adamczyk said that unlike in other states, Wisconsin law prevents their names from being made public.

In many cases, Wisconsin public workers’ retirement benefits are based on contributions made by the employee and employer as a required percentage of their earnings. The contributions go into a retirement account that grows by being invested and collecting interest.

The former public worker getting the $1,000-a-day benefit earned an average of about $610,000 a year in his or her three highest-earning years as a public worker, according to the memo.

Adamczyk says he has not extensively studied how these figures compare to public retiree benefits in other states. But he said they are more lucrative than, or at the top end of, public worker pensions reported in a handful of other states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California.

Adamczyk previously sought to eliminate the office of state treasurer, but voters rejected that in a referendum earlier this year. He is not seeking re-election for the post this year.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.