Editorial: Addressing Oregon PERS crisis a moral imperative for lawmakers
On the opening day of this year’s state legislative session, a glimmer of hope emerged for the future of Oregon’s unsustainably overly-generous Public Employee sRetirement System.
Speculation has been running high that the Democratically dominated Legislature would duck the issue this year. But the Senate Workforce Committee opened by inviting legislative colleagues to submit proposals for viable options to address the runaway costs associated with PERS, which has accrued a massive $22 billion in unfunded liability.
What a pleasant surprise, given the committee is being chaired by a freshman Democrat, Kathleen Taylor of Portland. Following sessions in which Democrats gingerly discussed PERS reform among themselves, but turned their backs on GOP suggestions, we can only hope Taylor’s call to action is sincere.
According to The Oregonian, Taylor vowed, “All bills will be treated equally, and all will be brought out into the public light so everyone can see what we’re grappling with.” If so, we applaud her courage and fairness.
The state has plenty of budgetary knots to untie, from a general fund deficit to growing transportation needs. But the state cannot pretend to make progress toward financial stability without addressing PERS reform as well.
And it has a short window to do so. The closer the next election, the less likely Democrats will want to stand against the public employee unions who fund their campaigns.
The last round of reform was largely shot down in the courts. It was a disappointing outcome, but at least provided some framework for future attempts.
Lawmakers now realize legislation that changes retirement benefits already been earned will not pass muster. But they know the courts will, at least prospectively, allow changes in all PERS tiers.
The Senate committee’s memo to legislatures noted, “Viable proposals must generate billions of dollars in savings to move the needle.” Yes, that’s billion with a B.
Steve Rodeman, executive director of PERS, responded with this warning in a Wednesday presentation: “Any reduction of benefits will be challenged in court.”
There is much talk locally and nationwide about the need for voters to stand up and speak out more than ever. Those discussions most frequently revolve around people’s distaste at the federal level. Contacting local representatives, however, often has more impact from an individual.
Oregonians must encourage their representatives from both sides of the aisle to work together, confront the public unions and finally reach long-overdue PERS reform.