The Democrats’ dilemma with PERS


by Dan Lucas

The thrust of the Democratic rocket in Oregon reached its zenith recently, and we witnessed its stall in the legislative session that just ended. Democrats controlled everything in state government, but they were paralyzed by the huge PERS dilemma. Like the stages on the old Saturn rockets, the older tiers of PERS that helped get Democrats where they are — have started to become a drag.

So how long before Oregon Democrats jettison the older tiers of PERS retirees?

It’s getting more and more difficult for Democrats or public employee unions to spin the PERS unfunded liability and its devastating impact on government budgets across the state. Groups like Stand for Children, the Oregon School Boards Association and editorial boards across the state are calling for meaningful PERS reform.

This session, Oregon Democrats were caught like a deer in the headlights. Governor Kitzhaber, who mainly cares about funding his government-run health programs, initially showed a much greater willingness to make meaningful reforms to PERS. He knows that if he doesn’t, money he wants to use to expand government health programs will be consumed by PERS obligations.

It is an increasing dilemma for Oregon Democrats. How do they deal with this monster they’ve created? This Pac Man of government budgets in Oregon, the PERS obligations, will continue to consume more and more of the funds that could be used to provide government services and any new government programs.

Portland Democrat Tina Kotek held the line for the old guard PERS recipients, using her position as House Speaker.

But with increasing pressure from within, from younger government workers, from left-leaning editorial boards and from elected Democrats with plans that need funding, Oregon Democrats and their allies the public employee unions are going to have to deal with meaningful PERS reform.

Pressure from younger government workers like the teacher who had been laid off from North Salem who wrote the guest opinion piece for the Oregonian back in March. He wrote “What’s been most upsetting is that while teachers’ unions have fought and continue to fight for retiree benefits during this economic crisis, working teachers have been waylaid.” He had led off with this startling exclamation “As a liberal, a teacher, and a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama, I have reached what may sound like a surprising conclusion: I completely agree with the Oregon Republican Party when it comes to reforming the Public Employees Retirement System.”

His op-ed may have been a bellwether, a canary in the mine heralding a seismic shift to come in the Oregon political landscape. That shift includes groups like Stand for Children. Back during the Measure 66 and Measure 67 campaigns, Stand for Children was a staunch ally of the Democrats. Now, not so much. They are now very much at odds with their former allies over meaningful PERS reform.

Oregon Democrats will become increasingly concerned that as the PERS crunch continues, not only will old allies desert them, but more voters will start to realize that if they want meaningful PERS reform, they’ll need to vote for Republicans. That’s what someone who had been a lifelong Democrat recommended last September.  He wrote “Unions and government administrators opt for fewer school days, larger class sizes and closed courthouses over PERS reform and controlling the cost of benefits. PERS will require an additional $1 billion next biennium. Without Democratic plans for controlling these costs, promises for progressive tax reform or fully funding education are simply not credible with moderate voters,” and he advised voting Republican to send a message to the Democratic Party.

To avoid losing more allies and voters to Republican candidates, Democrats are going to have to face their PERS dilemma and start throwing older tier PERS retirees under the bus. They’ll also need to run their public relations spin machines overtime to try to distance themselves from the years that they’ve kowtowed to the public employee unions to create the PERS dilemma in the first place.