More editorial boards support fair, constitutional PERS reform

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Oregon Senate Republicans

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PERS ideas offer start for reform
Corvallis Gazette-Times Editorial Board
September 15, 2016

It would be an understatement to say that the Oregon Legislature has been unwilling to tackle any kind of serious reform regarding the state’s Public Employees Retirement System.

In fact, the party line, so to speak, has been something along these lines: “We tried in 2013, and we got slapped down by the state Supreme Court and now there’s nothing else that we can do.”

Some of that is true: Legislators did make an effort to rein in some of the rising costs of PERS, and the court did in fact rule that most of those efforts were unconstitutional.

In the meantime, PERS costs continue to burn a bigger and bigger hole in state and local government budgets. For example, the state now estimates that governmental entities will need to cough up an additional $885 million – on top of the $2 billion they’ve already tossed into the system this biennium.

The PERS projections for future years don’t look any better.

One of the notable failures of the 2015 legislative session was its inability (“unwillingness” might be a better word) to seriously consider any PERS reforms. The issue didn’t come up in any serious way in the shorter 2016 session.

But last week, a pair of legislators, Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson and Republican Sen. Tim Knopp, announced that they had asked the Legislative Counsel to take a look at a list of PERS proposals to gauge if they would withstand a constitutional challenge. The upshot: The Legislative Counsel concluded that seven of the proposals likely were constitutional.

…But the point is that legislators have options to consider that might be able to offer some relief from skyrocketing PERS costs. It would be negligent for them to continue to ignore the issue in the 2017 session.

Bipartisan ideas to reform PERS
East Oregonian Editorial Board
September 15, 2016

Two state legislators have offered an impressive list of ideas for fixing Oregon’s ailing retirement system for public employees. Their suggestions are fair, constitutional and would protect government services. Their effort, notably, is bipartisan.

With all that going for it, the ideas are unlikely to be embraced by Gov. Kate Brown or Democratic leaders in the Legislature. They are focused instead on spending potential revenue from Measure 97 and gaining super-majority status for their party.

The challenges of Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) are well documented. The program’s unfunded liability exceeds $21 billion and continues to grow. Costs to school districts and local governments are scheduled to jump $885 million next year, forcing massive cuts in staffing, programs and services.

Our state’s political leaders cobbled together a so-called “grand bargain” in 2013 to save PERS. Predictably, many of the changes were struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court because they reduced accrued benefits for current retirees. The planned “savings” legislators counted on instead increased unfunded liabilities.

Two respected state senators realize the severity of the challenge and are attempting to create momentum for bipartisan change. Democrat Betsy Johnson from Clatsop County and Republican Tim Knopp of Bend have created a work group to craft solutions that are legal, bipartisan, fair to retirees and protect essential government services. They have invited experts, government officials, retirees, and representatives from business and labor to participate.

…Sens. Johnson and Knopp should be lauded for their efforts to reform PERS. Perhaps they can initiate the political momentum to get past the inertia in the state capital.

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