Editorial: Tools for understanding PERS

It’s one of the biggest challenges facing Oregon lawmakers next year: finding a way to bring the cost of health insurance and other benefits, including retirement, for public employees under control.

As Gov. John Kitzhaber noted recently, without change, the cost of educating each child in the state will go up by $1,000 in the coming two years, though none of that money will actually go to providing education. Rather, about half will go to the Public Employee Retirement System, which must make up $16 billion lost in the stock market turndown of 2008.

All that adds up to a 2013 Legislature that must focus on PERS, like it or not, and a public which, if it hopes to have a say in the discussion, must understand the issue better than most of us do today.

Fortunately, there are several helpful tools out that should give readers a far better understanding of PERS, its problems and the impact of some solutions being discussed even now.

The PERS website, oregon .gov/PERS, itself is a good place to start. It contains a history of the program, as well as a variety of shorter articles and fact sheets that explain just what PERS is and how it works, who is covered by it and what it costs.

Then there’s a paper prepared by former Secretary of State Phil Keisling. “PERS in Crisis, The Sequel,” is available at oregonpers.info/Library/Down load.aspx?docid=1186. The white paper, written in 2009, lays out Oregon’s PERS problem as it was in 2009 and looked into the not-so-pretty future now upon us.

Finally, there’s a small book published recently by Bend lawyer Daniel Re. Re, a bright, thoughtful guy, got interested in PERS in the 1990s. He sees an inherent conflict in the system when those who create it — lawmakers — and those who decide whether it passes legal muster — the state’s judges — are beneficiaries of the same system they created and now judge.

His book, “The PERS Problem,” provides “information about PERS that PERS legislators do not want you to know.” His aim, Re says, is to give readers the sort of information they need to make informed decisions about PERS. It is available for the Kindle e-reader or the app at amazon.com .

Though all this may sound like the PERS cure for insomnia, it’s worthwhile reading, whether you’re a public employee or just plain folks. PERS is shaping Oregon’s future, like it or not, and unless Oregonians understand it they will be unable to control it.

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