As the contentious business of fixing Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System begins, members of the Oregon Legislature may find themselves unable to take part in that system. A bill barring lawmakers from PERS membership has been introduced, supported by, among others, Sen.Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and State Rep. Justin Conger, R-Bend.
It’s a good idea.
Legislators are, by definition, the men and women responsible for creating and changing the system that pays retirement benefits for more than 100,000 Oregonians, a number that would triple if all PERS employees were to retire tomorrow. Legislators can join PERS and become eligible for benefits accrued during their time in the Legislature.
Some, like the members of the Central Oregon delegation, have opted out of PERS, though most have not. And that, Knopp and others say, is a problem.
Even if lawmakers could set aside their personal stake in PERS reform — or the lack of it — persuading others that they’re able to remain unbiased about a subject in which they have a direct and personal financial stake is difficult, at best. Yet doing so is darned important.
PERS is the noisiest elephant in the financial room of nearly every school district, city and other government agency in Oregon these days. Those agencies are legally obligated to ensure that the system is funded at a certain level, and to reach that level, they’re being required to shell out more and more money each year.
In the Bend-La Pine school district, as one example, next year’s PERS payment could mean the loss of as many as 74 teachers, if reform goes undone. And the school district is far from an oddity where PERS is concerned.
It’s clear coming up with reforms that change that picture won’t be easy. Unions from the Oregon Education Association to the Service Employees International Union will fight, and fight hard, to keep the system as it is. Taking lawmakers’ personal stake out of the equation should make the job a bit easier.