Like Gov. Kate Brown, many state lawmakers would rather do almost anything than talk about Oregon’s public pension crisis. The problem refuses to be ignored, however. Pension costs have contributed significantly to an anticipated $1.6 billion shortfall in the state budget. As if that weren’t alarming enough, PERS is also a growing problem for local governments. The cost of employee compensation, including PERS, is increasing more rapidly than the property tax revenue upon which local governments rely.
A recently released Portland State University study provides a sobering peek at Oregon’s future. Over a five-year period from 2016 to 2021, the study estimates, the total-compensation cost of a public employee with a $70,000 salary will climb by about $36,000. The two biggest components of this increase are salary, expected to climb about $13,100, and PERS, expected to climb $13,500.
Such math points to some tough choices. Tax hikes may be necessary to retain a healthy population of teachers and other public employees. But tax hikes aren’t likely to prevail — in the Legislature or on the ballot — without a good-faith effort in Salem to contain costs, beginning with PERS. Unfortunately, that task would require leadership from the governor’s office that Oregon no longer has.
Given such difficulties, you’d think the last thing legislators would do is entertain proposals that would make the PERS problem even worse. You’d be wrong, of course.
On Monday, the Senate Workforce Committee will hold a public hearing for a bill that would classify employees of the Oregon State Hospital as police officers for pension purposes. PERS allows some employee groups, including police officers, to retire up to five years earlier than other employees and with enhanced monthly payments. Oregon State Hospital has just over 2,300 employees, including nurses, therapists, physicians and many others.
While brazen, this proposal isn’t as outlandish as it may appear. A similar bill died in committee last year. At the time, Brant Johnson, a collaborative problem solving coach and vice president of the hospital’s Service Employees International Union sublocal, explained to lawmakers why he and his colleagues deserved to be included in the “high-risk, high-stress” category of PERS. The psychiatric hospital’s patients include people deemed a risk to themselves or others and people found guilty of crimes except for insanity. Employees caring for these patients, Johnson noted, are at heightened risk of physical and psychological injury. Johnson himself claimed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meanwhile, the definition of police officer used for PERS purposes has become more expansive over the years. It includes parole and probation officers, criminal investigators employed by the state Department of Justice and juvenile parole and probation officers employed by the Oregon Youth Authority. It even includes Oregon lottery enforcement agents. A reasonable case probably could be made that at least some Oregon State Hospital employees endure conditions as stressful and dangerous as those public employees listed above.
Of course, a similar case could be made for other employee groups who’d like to retire earlier and wealthier. And the moment lawmakers decided to stuff state hospital workers into the ranks of pension “police,” some other employee group would be clamoring to be included as well. At some point, the expansion has to stop.
It would be easier to take Senate Bill 811 seriously if the bill itself were a serious and carefully drawn proposal to help only those employees who face significant risk. Instead, it includes every, single employee of the state hospital, regardless of how little patient contact each person’s job entails.
Johnson, the SEIU official, explained to lawmakers in 2016 why they should supercharge pensions on such a large scale. Because the state hospital was built to “normalize” patient experience, employees are never going to be entirely removed from risk and stress, even those who work in office-support roles. Therefore, “when you come to work, you’ll park and walk through a parking lot and past grounds crews that are filled with patients,” he said. Meanwhile, “you might buy your coffee at the coffee house inside the hospital from a barista that’s a patient that’s working in that job.”
Really. If having a case of the barista terrors qualifies a state worker as a police officer for pension purposes, what wouldn’t?
Senate Bill 811 is, in the end, nothing more than a money grab that legislators have seen fit to give a hearing, and perhaps more. Meanwhile, the reluctance to discuss inconvenient matters that characterizes Gov. Brown’s relationship with Oregon’s PERS crisis is in evidence here, too. SB 811 features no named sponsor who might be expected to defend it. It is, instead, “sponsored” by the Senate Workforce Committee. The chair of that committee, Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, might be able to shed some light on it, but her office did not reply to a request for comment.
One person who did offer an opinion is Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, vice-chair of the workforce committee. And Knopp, a PERS-reform advocate, says the bill will “have a substantial impact to the system in a negative way financially.” Given that PERS is “already overextended and near collapse ... my goal is not to do anything to further that, but to do what we can to improve the fiscal condition and the sustainability of PERS.”
Let’s hope most of Knopp’s colleagues share his goal, especially if they intend to seek tax increases to mitigate the harm of past PERS mistakes.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.