Gov. Kate Brown took a tentative step last week toward addressing one of Oregon’s most uncomfortable realities. A $22 billion reality.
She wants the state to consider selling off or borrowing on state assets to pay down the $22 billion shortfall of the state’s Public Employees Retirement System.
Brown doesn’t know exactly how much the state’s sell-off will help, yet. But, as she said recently: “The PERS unfunded liability is an enormous challenge, but it’s one we must meet.”
The $22 billion represents the unfunded liability of the PERS system. Nobody begrudges the right of state employees to a fair pension, but the state doesn’t have enough money to cover the future payouts.
And when the state is short, the state government, school districts, cities and counties have to increase the money they pay into the PERS fund to ensure there will be enough. For instance, the pension bill for Bend-La Pine Schools will lurch up by $4.5 million this year. What’s worse, though, is the increases in PERS contributions are not expected to stop. Public employers aren’t contributing enough to bring the liability down. And more critically, the money that the state has invested to pay for PERS is not making enough.
Oregon is not growing its way out of the PERS problem. The PERS problem is growing worse. In fact, Oregon may be short more than $22 billion. The $22 billion figure is derived based on an assumption of what state PERS investments make. The assumption for those investments is 7.5 percent annually. If the investments make less than 7.5 percent, Oregon will need to put more money in the PERS system. That’s because the investments aren’t earning enough to cover the future payouts for retirees.
The investments aren’t, in fact, making a 7.5 percent rate of return. In the last 10 years, they have only made about 5.5 percent, according to The Oregonian.
The state PERS board that sets the assumed rate of return should be honest with Oregonians. It should set a realistic rate. Hiding the size of the problem with a nonsensical rate of return just makes the problem easier to ignore.