By Thomas Triplett

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It is time that our Legislature and our governor pay serious attention, not mere lip service, to the avalanche of debt associated with the Public Employees Retirement System. Recently, a task force was formed. Gov. Brown instructed it not to consider reduction of the current plan benefit structure, merely to look for ways to increase the tax burden on Oregon taxpayers or, alternatively, to mortgage our future by selling assets of the state. And the task force complied. It sought to reduce the debt by 20 percent, leaving the state and the taxpayer burdened with a more than $20 billion shortfall. Unfortunately, that would be merely the resulting underfunded debt. There is no assurance, even with the added tax burden each of us would share, that the underfunding would be arrested, as opposed to continuing to spiral out of control.

We have a system that is rife with conflict of interest. The governor is on PERS; most legislators are on it; all public employees are on it, and worse, all judges are on it. Can it be reasonably expected that any of these classes of beneficiaries will vote against their pocket book and in favor of the public? Why couldn’t our Supreme Court have stepped aside when asked to decide the constitutionality of legislated benefit revisions and, with the assistance of the governor, appointed truly neutral third parties to decide these fundamental issues? Is it because they feared that the outcome might favor the ordinary tax-paying citizen? Were they able to put their own financial stake in the rearview mirror and decide on the merits? The appearance of impropriety is overwhelming.

What happens at the bargaining table when both sides are PERS participants? Can we expect the voice of reason or merely expressions of self-interest? How can we expect true leadership from a governor, 26 years at the PERS trough who is beholden to public employee unions that lavish funds on her political campaigns?

When you step back and look to the private sector, many multiemployer/union plans were and remain underfunded. Discussions quickly focused upon freezing these defined-benefit plans and substituting defined-contribution plans. Yes, the frozen plans’ debts had to be retired, but no new debt was created. And, where that occurred four or five years ago, most of the employees are delighted. They no longer worry about their plans filing bankruptcy. Their retirements are secure.

Why not start the process by converting all present office-holding politicians and judges from PERS and placing them under a defined-contribution plan? Why not have the state’s labor negotiators be persons who are not covered by PERS? Or why not, as was done in Wisconsin, take pension off the bargaining table entirely? At least the most egregious conflicts of interest would be quelled.

One person suggested that we take a three-step approach: Freeze the current plan and adopt a substitute defined-contribution plan; float tax-free state bonds at 3 percent; pay off, with the proceeds, the entire unfunded pension liability; and pay for the bonds by a sunsetting surcharge on property tax. Surely, in a state of 4 million people, there are other good ideas. Can we continue to afford to stand behind a governor who is conflicted and bereft of common sense? Behind one that opines there are no solutions? This is a sad commentary on the state of affairs within our beloved state.

— Thomas Triplett lives in Bend.