Though it seems like a recurring nightmare, we see articles about our insolvent Public Employees Retirement System on a weekly basis.
We all must question the responsibility of Oregon legislators who negotiated contracts promising benefits that couldn’t be sustained under a tax system based mostly on highly volatile personal state income taxes. But as we are often told by our labor unions, a contract is indeed a contract, even as the state faces a $15 billion unfunded liability in PERS funding.
Oregon’s budget may be balanced, but the PERS obligation may continue to cut funding for all other programs until our state simply will need to make drastic cuts or declare some sort of financial emergency (bankruptcy is not a legal option according to state law).
The only way out of this problem will be totally dependent on the public employee unions’ willingness to renegotiate these onerous contracts. While Oregon legislators wring their collective hands over the PERS problem, it is clear that those in the governing majority are little more than union employees who would dare not change the status quo. So why would the public employee unions be willing to change the PERS contracts that seem to be so beneficial to union members? Well, for starters, these PERS contracts are badly damaging to funding for other important state programs like law enforcement and human services. If the unions stepped forward and offered new affordable contracts, it would strengthen Oregon’s financial position and vastly improve the public’s deteriorating perception of public employee unions.
Ironically, these unsustainable PERS contracts are hurting the very people and professions the unions claim to represent. Take the teachers union as an example. The excessive funds dedicated to PERS could be used to hire new, highly qualified and motivated teachers or provide upgrades to school facilities. This money could also be dedicated to better-equipped classrooms and increased teacher salaries. I’m often amazed that current teachers aren’t leading the charge for PERS reform.
The initial step in this necessary correction must be initiated by the public employee unions. The unions should consider this the ultimate PR move, both improving Oregon financially while saving current, former and future public employees from financial uncertainty.
While I’m personally opposed to higher taxes to fund PERS, I do think the citizens of Oregon will be more receptive to higher revenue ideas if the state can truly live within its means. The only rules in the negotiating process should be that no party can ask for or demand guaranteed funds that do not exist.
The idea that retirees should receive a promised amount, regardless of market circumstances, has proved unsustainable and must be discarded. Like all other Americans with retirement plans, public employees must share the risk and reward of their investments. While our financial problems are different than those that brought Detroit to bankruptcy, we should understand that financial catastrophes can occur when government officials insist on spending beyond their means.
Like many Oregonians, I’ve grown weary of the ongoing reports of the unsolvable PERS problem. We cannot expect the legislators to solve this crisis, because the political campaigns of the governing majority are well-funded by the public employee unions. The problem will be solved only when the unions initiate the process for the good of Oregon and for the future financial stability of their membership.