Two items have appeared in the headlines in the past week in Oregon. The first is the intransigence of the Speaker of the House, Tina Kotek (D-Portland), to seriously address the continuing financial crises for our cities, schools, and healthcare institutions caused by Oregon’s gold-plated Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). And the second is the battle going on before the Oregon Supreme Court regarding the ballot title for a measure that can best be described as a public employees’ right to work initiative. Are the two measures related? Absolutely, but you would never know it by searching Oregon’s mainstream media.
A good friend of mine, who is not only politically astute but routinely puts his money where his mouth is, opined at the start of the legislative session that the heat generated around the abuses of PERS would be so great that the politicians (the Democrats in this case) would have to yield. Au contraire I responded predicting that at the end of the session nobody more than three hundred yards from the State Capitol still would know any more about PERS and would care even less.
When I first became involved in politics, a wily old lobbyist who became my mentor, remarked that to fight a war you need an enemy. By that he meant that you need to be able to identify and define a demonstrable foe – not an ideology, a concept or an idea but a flesh and blood person or group of people. I doubt there was anything new or unique with regard to the comments. They paraphrase concepts contained in Sun Tzu’s Art of War and are reflected in Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War.
Since the legislative elections last fall, the Oregonian and other major city newspapers in Oregon have opined relentlessly about the abuses of PERS. They have defined the scope of the problem, the fiscal impact on state and local governments and particularly on schools and the growing size of the problem into the future. They have noted that class sizes grow because increased spending on schools is eaten up by PERS rather than hiring additional teachers. They described the reductions in healthcare benefits because of the increased cost of PERS for program workers. They have cautioned about the growing likelihood of releasing violent offenders back onto the streets because the increased cost of PERS is siphoning off dollars that should be used for incarceration. They even describe possible adjustments to PERS to mitigate the costs.
But they NEVER get to the cause of the problem and, therefore, the solution.
The cause of the problem is the same cause we see in almost any irrational behavior by politicians and government – money, BIG MONEY. In this case about $130 Million each election cycle. That is the amount of money that is collected by various state agencies, local governments and school districts and remitted to the public employee unions each election cycle. While not every dime is spent directly on political campaigns virtually every dollar is spent with politics in mind. The public employee unions do very little organizing since membership in the union is a required element of most government jobs. They spend very little on collective bargaining activities because they bargain with the very government officials whose campaigns they funded in the past election cycle. Only a small portion of the money spent on politics by the public employee unions is reported – that being direct contributions to politicians and political action committees. The monies spent for candidate recruitment, issue identification, opposition research, polling, political education, and voter turnout are not reportable and Oregon’s public employee unions, with their unlimited funds, have turned them into an art form. An art form from which only Oregon’s Democrats benefit. (Oh please, if I hear one more time how the public employee unions donate to both parties I’m going to throw up – their idea of bipartisan donations is to give piddling amounts to Republicans who are running uncontested or who have such a decided registration advantage that no Democrat stands a chance. The only people who ever believe that are the boneheads in the Republican leadership that think they can finally crack the monolithic union mentality by never criticizing the unions and giving them some of what they want – idiots!)
And it is not just the sheer magnitude of the money that is available it is the ease with which it is raised and distributed. Tax dollars are used to collect and remit it to the unions. Quarterly payments are made by government agencies to the unions. Democrats, particularly candidates for statewide office, need only to to make three phone calls – the Oregon Education Association (OEA), the Service Employees International Unions (SEIU), and the AFL-CIO and more importantly they don’t have to spend time convincing them, they merely needed to tell them how much is needed. In essence, the public employee unions have become the financial arm of the Democrat Party in Oregon.
The gold-plated PERS system together with its staggering financial demands exists solely and only because the public employee unions want it to exist. The unions are solely responsible for the reckless administration of PERS under the administrations of Democrat governors, Neil Goldschmidt, Barbara Roberts and John Kitzhaber during which the PERS administrators refused to update mortality tables resulting in higher benefits for longer periods than were justified. Long time labor lawyer, union-backed Democrat Attorney General Ted Kulongsoki refused to appeal the bizarre decision by the Oregon Supreme Court that declared that benefits once afforded to public employees can never be reduced or modified (only increased) thus establishing rights for public employees that are not afforded to any other private sector employees. And the public employee unions have been the single driving force in defeating every significant reform to PERS that has been proposed over the past two decades. But for Oregon’s public employee unions, the PERS crises would have been resolved twenty years ago and the taxpayer funds wasted on this albatross would have been better spent educating Oregon’s children, caring for Oregon sick, and providing for Oregon’s poor.
So when you read in the Oregonian that Speaker Kotek has refused to allow any PERS measures proceed – other than the one already blessed by the public employees unions – you should be suspicious about her comments:
“’I feel fine about my values,’” Kotek said in the same soft but matter-of-fact tone she uses when she’s running the House floor. “’I feel fine about where we’re heading’.”
And well she should because the primary “value” of a politician is to get re-elected and the secondary “value” is to ensure that enough of your fellow politicians get re-elected so that you can retain power. Ms. Kotek knows where the money is and what she must do to keep the money flowing. There are never any quiet discussions that suggest that if Ms. Kotek squashes PERS reform there will be campaign contributions available. The public employee unions and the Oregon Democrat Party are so intricately intertwined that such discussions are unnecessary.
As I noted in a previous column:
“All of the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS), the continuing increase in the cost of government services while those services are being reduced, the quality of education going down while the costs go up, and the unrelenting march towards higher taxes and fees are pointless because the public employee unions are the principle beneficiaries of such waste and corruption. The ongoing bias against business in general coupled with the insistence that government should choose the winners and losers – particularly in the area of energy production – continues to drive business out of the state, to marginalize the growth of businesses already here and mitigate against the ability to attract new business to the state.”
But until the business community, the Republicans and the statewide media are prepared to describe in detail the reasons for the abuses in PERS, the reasons that attempts to remedy those abuses fail, and the necessity of reining in the political largesse of the public employee unions, any efforts to reform will fail as they have failed thus far this legislative session. Until voters know who is responsible and who they support, ensuing elections will proceed ignorant of the cause and effect of the public employee unions influence and the massive amounts of taxpayer dollars wasted on their demands.