Panel backs Democratic proposal for pension cuts
By JONATHAN J. COOPER
Of the Associated Press
SALEM — The Oregon Legislature's powerful budget committee on Friday approved a Democratic effort to curb pension benefits, sending the measure for a vote in the full Senate that could come next week.
The committee's party-line vote followed complaints from Republicans that the bill is a timid approach that won't give taxpayers enough relief from significant increases in pension costs. Democrats are also feeling heat from the left as public-employee unions say it would illegally violate a contract they have with the state.
“I think we've united the entire state, all sides, in dislike of this proposal,” said Rep. Peter Buckley, an Ashland Democrat and a leading architect of the pension-cutting bill. “But again, we stand by it because we do believe it is balanced and fair.”
Severe investment losses during the Great Recession erased 27 percent of the pension fund in 2008 alone, requiring steep increases in taxpayer contributions to make up the difference and limiting money available for state and local government services.
The Democratic proposal would reduce cost-of-living increases in retirement checks on a graduated scale and eliminate supplemental tax payments for retirees living outside Oregon. It also would push $350 million worth of payments into future years.
Republicans offered their own plan that would have further cut pension benefits, saving more money. They said only a substantial reform of the pension system will prevent the need for more cuts in the future.
“We can either fix it or tweak it,” said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton. “I favor fixing it.”
Two Republicans, Reps. Greg Smith of Heppner and Bob Jenson of Pendleton, voted no for another reason. They said the state had an obligation to keep promises.
“Where I come from in Eastern Oregon, when you give your word you keep it,” Smith said. “Good or bad, you keep it.”
Gov. John Kitzhaber has pushed for steeper cuts, but his office says he'll sign the Democratic bill if it reaches him.