As things now stand the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System has an unfunded liability of well over $20 billion and the bills are coming due. Yet the governor and the Legislature have yet to take serious steps to address the matter.
The governor hasn’t ignored it completely, to be sure. Friday, deep into the legislative session, she introduced her plan to shield school districts from their PERS problems. She has some good ideas and attempts to spread out the costs. She even asks district employees to help pay some of the burden.
PERS’s difficulties go far beyond K-12 education, however. They have an impact on state universities, cities, counties and tiny communities like Jordan Valley, population under 200, among others. Each one is having to dig deep to pay those pension bills, and that’s a problem. College tuition rises, even as the need for a college education increases. School districts may have to lay off teachers, and cities and counties charge more for the services they provide.
A pair of ballot measures sponsored by former Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and former Republican legislator Chris Telfer are in the works to take on the problems. The proposals do not change what’s owed on PERS. What they do do, however, is require state employees to help pay the bills in the future by contributing a percentage of their salaries to their retirement programs. Also, one would give new employees the option of using a 401(k)-style plan to which they and employers each would contribute 6% of the employee’s salary. The other requires lawmakers to study and make recommendations on a 401(k)-style plan.
The measures face an uphill battle, and Kulongoski and Telfer know it. They also know what’s at stake. Remember just what’s going on in Oregon’s schools.
School districts expect their PERS payments during the 2021-23 biennium to jump by 5.4%. And, while Brown’s early session goal was to give K-12 education an additional $2 billion, even that new money likely wouldn’t do much but fill in for money that must go to PERS.
If Oregon is to improve its schools and smaller taxing bodies are to continue providing services at costs the public can afford, something must be done about PERS. The Kulongoski-Telfer measures are a good start.