Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System was the focus of multiple bills this legislative session, but lawmakers failed to make meaningful progress on this critical issue, despite the system’s $22 billion unfunded liability.
The tone was set from the top, with House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown saying early in the session that no viable methods existed to curb the crushing budgetary effects of the convoluted PERS system.
The governor waited until the end of May, four months into a five-month session, to publicly admit something might be done. Her solution was to appoint a task force and ask for a report in November.
Lawmakers considered at least a dozen different ideas in multiple bills. Bend’s Republican Sen. Tim Knopp was a chief proponent of several reforms, and another came from two Democrats: Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton. A few bills made it out of one committee but stalled in another. Many didn’t get even that far.
Proposed provisions included:
• Basing pension calculations on the last five years of work instead of three.
• Capping final average salary used to calculate pensions at $100,000.
• Sending some portion of employees’ 6 percent contribution into the pension fund instead of a separate account.
• Reducing multipliers used in calculations.
• Cutting the interest rate for annuities.
• Changing retirement age and required years of service for new employees.
Senate Bill 1067, which was approved, includes brief reference to PERS in the midst of numerous unrelated cost-containment ideas. Its PERS changes, like those in several other minor bills, don’t address the exploding costs of the program.
Of all the weighty issues lawmakers considered this session, PERS should have been at the top of the list. In addition to its looming $22 billion funding gap, quickly escalating annual costs to school districts and other governments threaten all the state’s other priorities.
Public employee unions, which oppose changes that reduce PERS costs, also make significant contributions to the campaigns of the Democratic leadership in Oregon.
The problem, though, is not unique to Oregon; many states across the nation face similar pension problems.
Once upon a time — in the days of Republican Gov. Tom McCall — Oregon saw itself as a leader for the nation in public policy. Think of the bottle bill and public access to beaches, for example.
Is there anyone in Salem with that kind of vision?