Editorial: Reject secrecy about PERS pensions

Oregon taxpayers are footing the rapidly growing bill for the state’s public pension system, and they need all the information they can get to inform decisions about how the system can be reformed.

Senate Bill 369 would go in the opposite direction, and should be quickly quashed by the 2013 Legislature.

The bill seeks to shield retiree pension information from public disclosure. It would prevent taxpayers from knowing, for example, about former University of Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti’s nearly half-million dollar annual pension. Nor would we know about the more than $21,000 per month paid to former Portland Public Schools human resources director Steve Goldschmidt or the $20,000 per month in checks to William Korach, former superintendent of the Lake Oswego School District, among others.

The vast majority of Public Employees Retirement System recipients receive a fraction of those amounts, and the proposed legislation is designed to protect their privacy. Ironically, they are the ones who should most want the complete picture of PERS to be fully understood, so smart decisions can be made that protect their interests as well as the public purse. Oregon’s public pension system has emerged as a critical issue in the state’s finances and the ability of all levels of government to provide essential services. It must be reformed.

Sadly, many public employees have felt personally vilified by the debate about how to balance their legitimate interests with the impossible excesses that threaten to overwhelm the state’s budget.

Without reform, the cost to educate a child in Oregon will increase by nearly $1,000 in the next budget cycle, according to Gov. John Kitzhaber, with about half of that coming from increased costs of PERS, and little of it improving that child’s education. He blamed stagnant funding and PERS for teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and fewer days in the school year.

The 2013 Legislature will have numerous PERS bills to consider, including proposals from the governor to trim cost of living increases and eliminate a tax benefit for those who moved out of state and don’t pay the tax. A more comprehensive reworking of the system must follow, but short-term steps are needed to stem the tide that is taking teachers from classrooms and cops off the streets.

Secrecy is the wrong response to this crisis and can only impede progress toward workable and fair solutions.