Editorial

Kitzhaber AWOL on PERS

Gov. John Kitzhaber is full of ideas about reforming education but not so much about how to pay for it.

Rather than provide leadership to solve the critical problems of the state’s retirement system, he told educators this week that voters will need to “go to the polls and actually vote for some revenue.”

The governor was responding to members of his Oregon Education Investment Board, who urged him to promise increased education funding to the public, according to a report in The Oregonian. Members of that board have been traveling the state to get reaction to proposed strategies but instead have been hearing about lack of funding and its effects on class sizes, school counselors, high college tuition and many other financial issues.

A few years ago, Kitzhaber launched a major reform effort for Oregon education, designed to lead to far higher achievement and graduation rates. He’s getting pushback from educators, who say funding cuts make it unrealistic and unfair.

The governor is also working on a plan to revamp the state’s tax system but said now is not the time to seek voter approval of changes. And he has launched significant efforts for reform in public safety and health care.

But he’s shown no such leadership on the desperate need to reform the state’s poorly designed and overly generous Public Employee Retirement System, which is draining funds from schools and other government entities. Just the most recent increase of $2.2 million for the Redmond School District, for example, is the equivalent of 28 teachers or 13 school days.

Public understanding of the PERS crisis has been growing, and the next legislative session will face numerous proposals to impose rationality and curb the losses. But despite the surging interest, efforts are fractured, with no leadership to evaluate various proposals and develop support for a coordinated plan.

The governor is uniquely positioned to provide that leadership. He has credibility with the public employee unions that largely resist PERS reform, and he has the bully pulpit of the governor’s office at his command. Sadly, he is AWOL.