You’d think, with the state Public Employees Retirement System’s pension funds showing a whopping 15.4 percent rate of return on investments in 2017, that Oregonians could quit worrying about the financially strapped retirement system.
While 15.4 percent is more than double what the PERS governing board expected to get, it isn’t enough to dig the system out of its unfunded liability hole. Nor is it reasonable to assume the system’s investment managers will be able to duplicate last year’s rate over time.
The PERS unfunded liability — money it’s committed to paying retirees that the retirement system does not have — was some $25.3 billion in 2016; by the end of 2017 it had dropped to $22.3 billion.
Put another way, the state now has 73 cents in hand for every $1 it expects to pay out, an improvement of 4 cents on the dollar. But school districts, state government, cities, counties and special districts around the state still will be on the hook for substantially more money for PERS in the next biennium than they were in this one.
Together, they’ll be required to contribute about $4 billion to PERS in the 2019-21 budget period, a 38 percent increase over what they’re paying during the current one. That’s going to mean that some school districts may lay off teachers, and other agencies also will have to make do with less.
It would be nice to think that last year’s market performance was the new norm, but it wasn’t. While the market has done well during the current decade, that sort of performance is generally followed by a decade of mediocre returns, according to the Market Watch website. Overall, the market has averaged a 9.6 percent return since the 1920s.
Without genuine reform, which the Democratic-controlled Oregon Legislature so far refuses to consider, the PERS problem will continue to bleed schools, cities and others of precious resources for years. It’s time lawmakers got the message.