If you don't like numbers, you're at the wrong place. But if you enjoy basic math and have a strong stomach, grab your calculator, settle down and buckle up:
Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System, serving 293,000 current and former government workers, is $8.5 billion in the red. That's $29,000 per worker. Put another way, it's enough money to fund Oregon higher education at current levels for 20 years. If invested at 5 percent interest, it would pay $17,000 per year to every resident of McMinnville and never touch the principal.
You get the picture; it's a lot. But let's break it down into smaller pieces, if you can call $2 billion a small piece:
As reported by The Oregonian, in the 1990s, excess earnings that should have gone into a "rainy day" fund were jammed into personal retirement accounts. That action by the PERS Board added $2 billion to the shortfall. The same PERS Board has been using actuarial tables that are 24 years old, adding $1.5 billion to the shortfall.
Don't forget the Legislature: It added $1.5 billion to the deficit by raiding PERS funds for a court-ordered tax break to public employees; it guaranteed retirement accounts an 8 percent annual increase, no matter what happens to the stock market. Worst of all, legislators created - allegedly "by mistake" - a "Money Match" system that allows public employees with 30 years of service to retire today averaging 105 percent of their final salaries. For life!
Who made those decisions? People covered by the PERS pension plan. Who will pay the bill? Silly question.
Here's how Oregon State Senate President Gene Derfler assessed the situation: "The public employee unions can essentially tell the Legislature what it can and cannot do. People here live in fear of what they can do."
All I can say is, it's a damn shame. Some greedy, union leaders conspired with an ignorant Legislature, a lazy media (present company included) and a general public wearing blinders. The result could destroy the quality of public services for decades, because Oregonians will turn a cold shoulder to tax increases that shore up a pension system run amok.
Task forces are under way, and reforms will be proposed. But just in case, come November, Oregonians should protect themselves by finding out which candidates are supported by the various public employee unions, and vote accordingly.
Jeb Bladine is editor and publisher of the News-Register.