Even after Oregon’s legislators headed for home Monday, their thorniest problems remained unsolved, and Gov. John Kitzhaber, at least, wants to change that sooner rather than later. If he’s to do so, he’ll need more than luck on his side.
It was clear from the beginning of the 2013 session that just about everyone in Salem believed the state’s K-12 schools need more money than they’re getting. It was equally clear to most that the state’s Public Employees Retirement System was the cause of at least some of the schools’ problems, and, in fact, was hurting other governments throughout the state.
In the end, lawmakers agreed on very modest PERS reforms, which are being challenged in court and which would not free up the money everyone said schools need. More serious reforms and modest tax increases were discussed but failed to gain enough support to make it through the Senate even before a House vote could have been taken.
That outcome was predictable. With public unions putting pressure on Democrats to leave PERS alone, even modest reforms seemed unlikely early on, and what Republicans wanted was not particularly modest. Meanwhile, tax increases sought by Democrats did not include the small-business cuts Republicans insisted upon.
Then, when a PERS bill did pass, it was modest in the extreme, simply kicking much of the current bill for PERS down the road a couple of years. Part of what it did is create a reduction in PERS payments by directing the PERS board to instruct school districts and other entities with government employees to pay less.
No one is particularly happy with the current state of affairs, including the governor. Not surprisingly, he’s willing to call lawmakers into special session to deal with the two issues, but only if he’s comfortable that both PERS reforms and tax increases will be approved. It’s a tall order.
For one thing, the PERS changes that were approved are currently before the state Supreme Court, and it’s hard to believe that Kotek and other Democrats will consider more serious reform until they know the fate of what they’ve already done. Nor, meanwhile, are Republicans willing to vote for higher taxes without relief for small business, a plan Democrats do not support.