Governor Kitzhaber squandered chance for PERS reform

Sal Esquivell_thb

by Rep. Sal Esquivel

In recent weeks, Governor John Kitzhaber has been traveling around the state and talking about calling the Legislature in for a special session to make further fixes to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). This sounds like a good idea and an admirable goal on the surface, but it also raises any number of questions.

The most important is obvious—why wasn’t this done during the five-month legislative session that we just adjourned?

For the first time ever in his dual stints as governor, Kitzhaber’s party was completely in charge of both the House and the Senate. He had a golden opportunity to use his bully pulpit to its full extent and fix many of the long-term problems facing the state.

Instead, the ruling party decided on a PERS plan that does not, and will not, ever fix the underlying issues within the system. No other plans were even given consideration.

There’s been talk for weeks about a “grand bargain,” which would combine further PERS reform with tax increases between $200 and $300 million. But that raises the question: If fixing PERS is so important, then why should those reforms only be considered as part of a tax increase package? Why should legislators have to put $200 to $300 million in additional tax burdens on Oregonians to do something that should be done anyway?

For five months, the Legislature was in session and could have tackled the issues appropriately. I was among those calling for us to do so. But for purely political reasons, that didn’t happen.

A robust May revenue forecast gave us $2 billion in additional revenue over the 2011-13 biennium, giving the state enough money to balance the budget. This could have been done as far back as May. But as it were, due to poor session management, the state education budget wasn’t passed until early July. Every school district in the state is required to have their budgets approved, adopted and finalized by the end of June, yet that still was not enough to motivate the timely passage of the education budget.

During the 2011 session, the House was split 30-30 between Republicans and Democrats. That bipartisan atmosphere produced many great results, including the passage of the state education budget in April, giving school districts adequate time to plan accordingly.

Every day of a legislative session costs Oregon taxpayers $40,000. That includes paying staff, as well as per diem for legislators. And given the governor’s historically poor track record when it comes to special sessions, that is probably not the best use of our limited resources.

True leadership involves taking a bold stance, bringing everybody to the table and engaging in real compromise towards a common goal and solution. Unless and until that happens, the difference between leadership and lip service will remain very clear.

In the meantime, the status quo will be maintained, despite the efforts of me and many of my colleagues to create a more sustainable PERS system that will honor the promises made to retirees without jeopardizing the state’s financial future.

Rep. Sal Esquivel has represented the Medford area in the Legislature since 2003. Prior to that, he served for over seven years on the Medford City Council.