Conflict of interest and new $$ pension bill

By William MacKenzie,

It looks like Oregon’s firefighters got what they paid for in the Oregon Legislature’s 2024 session.

In the last week of the session, the Legislature passed HB 4045, the Public Safety Workforce Stabilization Act, by a vote of 55-2 in the House and  25-5 in the Senate.

The bill, which Governor Kotek has not yet signed, would lower the retirement age with full benefits for firefighters with five years on the job from 60 years to 55, substantially increasing the deficit of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and increasing employer costs.

“…we believe that public servants deserve robust pay and benefits, excellent health care, and solid retirement. However, we are concerned that HB 4045 risks making the entire system insolvent through the unanticipated consequences via well intentioned policy,” commented Hasina Wittenberg, speaking for the Special Districts Association of Oregon & Oregon Fire District Director’s Association.

Left unmentioned in most media coverage of the bill is the name of the legislator behind it, Rep. Dacia Grayber, a Democrat who represents House District 28.

State Rep. Dacia Grayber

Grayber’s role is relevant when you consider her occupation and examine contributions to her 2022 election campaign.

First, Grayber is a firefighter herself, a member of  Tualatin Valley Firefighters Union – IAFF Local 1660. That means she will benefit from her bill.

Dacia Grayber, Source: IAFF

Second, at least $45,000, a hefty chunk of contributions to her 2022 campaign, came from firefighter-affiliated labor unions:

Contributor Amount

Oregon State Fire Fighters Council $ 10,000

International Association of Fire Fighters FIREPAC. $ 10,000

Portland Metro Fire Fighters PAC (223) $ 10,000

Professional Firefighters PAC (3219) $ 10,000

Salem Fire PAC (245) $ 5,000

In a March 4, 2024, letter to the Chief Clerk of the House, Grayber declared a potential conflict of interest because she could be impacted by the retirement age change. That’s not enough.

A May 2021 report from the Secretary of State’s Audits Division noted Oregon is one of only two states that require legislators to vote on matters on which they have an actual conflict of interest.

“The vast majority of states…either require or allow legislators to recuse themselves from voting on such matters,” the report said. “Some states go further, barring lawmakers from taking part in any discussion or action on bills in which they have a personal interest.”

The audit declared that such declarations are “a legislative loophole…(that) undermines the idea that public officials should not be involved in decisions that would benefit them, their family, or close associates.”

The report also cited a recommendation by Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics “…that a conflict of interest is not resolved by being transparent about it…”

The audit report called for the Oregon Legislature to “…consider changing statutes and chamber rules to require lawmakers to recuse themselves from any discussions, debates, or votes on such measures.”

It’s way past time for the Legislature to do so.