Tom Cox leads on PERS

by Eric Shierman

A remarkable amount of Oregon pundits and policymakers were caught off guard by the devastating announcement by the PERS board of a whopping 45% increase in state and local government employers’ required contribution to PERS to maintain promised benefits. Heads got scratched, wondering what the supposed 2003 reforms had actually accomplished, given the fact so many people thought the fiscal time bomb had been defused. Not Tom Cox, the Republican nominee for Oregon State Treasurer who has proactively made comprehensive PERS reform the centerpiece of his campaign when many thought the issue too esoteric for voters, too complicated for today’s political dialogue, and too controversial for a blue state like Oregon.

When the full implications of the PERS board’s predictably inevitable reaction to the actuarial math hit cash strapped local governments across this state, suddenly this clear and present threat to public services became a salient issue. Knowing what needs to be done to solve this problem however is less a challenge than getting all of the state of Oregon’s manifold organs of government with a finger print on public sector pension policy to coordinate their roles toward a single coherent reform.

As a management consultant, Tom Cox has seen this movie before. Countless corporations he has advised have faced a looming existential threat of one kind or another to their firm’s survival, but the problem’s solution often stood beyond the organization’s grasp, because the responsibility for action always remained divided among different divisions of the company. Similarly Cox has diagnosed Oregon’s problem: PERS reform remains divided among various levels of our state and local government. The Governor, mayors, and other executives negotiate contracts with their unionized employees, the legislature passes reform laws, the courts strike reforms down, the PERS board sets rates, and of course the State Treasurer manages the financial assets. Everyone owns a piece of the problem, but no one is stepping forward to take ownership of a comprehensive solution.

Cox is running a state wide campaign for a down ballot office like none other we have seen before. He is taking the lead on PERS, delving even into details where no Oregon gubernatorial candidate has ever gone before. It does of course make sense having the state treasurer quarterback Oregon’s most pressing financial problem rather than simply asking voters to allow him to be the one holding the knife as we collectively cut our financial wrist in a great act of public fiscal suicide.

Cox started his campaign doing something few candidates for public office of any level do – listen. He has engaged the City Club of Portland, an organization not known for its limited-government perspective. Cox has now incorporated the thinking of diverse perspectives from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research to Oregon’s own Phil Keisling. Released last week before the PERS board met was the final product, a detailed position paper that breaks down the steps to which PERS reform would need to take into four easy to understand phases: 1) Stop the bleeding. 2) Freeze the Problem. 3) Bond the Debt. 4) Grow Efficiencies. I could summarize it for you in more detail, but I want you to read it for yourself in its entirety here. You all need to see this for yourself, because those of you who follow politics know how rare policy clarity of this kind truly is.

Forget about shallow TV ads, fundraising, and expensive consultants; this is what I would like to see more of from Republican candidates. Let’s make sure we get the details of policy right first; then let the money fall into place behind a coherent vision of how we would lead America on a truly alternate course than the one it is now headed in.

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.