By BRAD CAIN
The Associated Press
SALEM - Citing public pressure, members of a House panel introduced a measure Wednesday to cut costs in the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System by replacing it with a new, unspecified retirement plan for public workers hired after July 2003.
Supporters said that especially with the special session considering raising taxes to plug the state's $860 million shortfall, lawmakers must begin acting now to rein in the cost of PERS.
"It would be irresponsible for the Legislature to go out and ask taxpayers to increase taxes" without first pursuing serious reform of PERS, said Rep. Rob Patridge, R-Medford.
Another supporter of the bill, Rep. Tim Knopp, said he's been inundated with letters from people in his district demanding action on PERS, which is facing an $8.5 billion shortfall in retirement benefits to 294,000 public employees in Oregon.
"My constituents are more interested in this issue than they ever have been," the Bend Republican said.
The bill that was introduced Wednesday would junk PERS for public employees hired after July 1, 2003. It would also create a legislative task force to recommend a replacement retirement system that would be considered by the 2003 Legislature.
At this point, it's not certain the bill will be brought up for a vote in the full House, though, given the jockeying surrounding the special session's main topic - plugging the state's budget gap.
"It's obviously a growing issue," said Trish Conrad, spokeswoman for House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin. "But he hasn't made a final decision" on whether the bill will be debated by the full House.
Simmons and Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber earlier appointed separate task forces to study the issue, prompting some Democrats on the special House panel to question the value of the bill to create yet a third task force.
"Task force votes are easy," said Rep. Mark Hass, D-Portland. "I don't see any action here."
But Patridge noted that the task force contemplated in the bill would be given the job of recommending a replacement for PERS to the 2003 Legislature, rather than just conducting an open-ended study of what critics say is an overly generous pension system.
"We need to deal with this issue, and show taxpayers that we are being responsible," the Medford lawmaker said.
Brian DeLashmutt, a lobbyist representing police, corrections and parole officers, said Wednesday that labor interests are worried about the bill's provision junking PERS for public employees hired after July 1, 2003.
"The 'drop dead date' is the major issue," DeLashmutt said. "Can they actually design a new retirement system and have it in place by then? If they don't, then there's no retirement plan" for those new hires.