Editorial: Governor, unions need to engage on PERS

The Oregon School Boards Association, a group as sensitive to the burden imposed by the state Public Employee Retirement System’s financial problems as any, hired a law firm recently to help it come up with potential legislative solutions that stand a chance of passing legal muster.

In doing so, it joined lawmakers, would-be lawmakers and other public officials who agree that something must be done, and quickly. Having lost money on its investments in recent years, PERS finds itself $16 billion in the hole, money it must collect from participating agencies, including school districts, cities, counties and state government.

The burden is huge. The Redmond School District, for example, will be required to dump an additional $2.2 million into PERS this year, enough to otherwise keep 28 teachers employed or keep schools open for 13 days.

Yet two of the players in the PERS drama have been strangely silent.

Public employee unions have so far been willing to discuss only one solution, and that’s layoffs. It’s a short-sighted answer to long-term problem that promises to do more damage to the unions than they themselves might recognize.

Unions, if they’re to prosper, must have a steady flow of new members — the very folks most likely to lose jobs in tough economic times. As unions shield their oldest, most expensive members, they do so at the expense of the very people who should fill their ranks tomorrow, in the process persuading those who were laid off that union membership doesn’t have much to offer in any event.

The other missing player, publicly at least, is Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber. Kitzhaber is too busy, perhaps, recreating everything from public education to health care to the way the U.S. Forest Service manages its public lands to fuss about a little thing like public employee pensions.

Yet all the reforms in the world won’t improve Oregon education, as one example, if school districts must put so much into PERS that they cannot hire the teachers they need to get the job done.

Fixing PERS’s problems is critical to the future health of all Oregon, from the smallest town to the state itself. It deserves the attention both of the unions that will feel the impact of change and the governor, who, after all, is charged with running the state.