Do you hesitate to join the debate on PERS because you're unsure how the system works? Well here, in half a nutshell, is how things go with Oregon's Public Employee Retirement System:
First, there's what the Legislature intended: Take the average of your top three salary years; add in some salary-boosting extras; multiply that number by 1.67 percent, or 2 percent if you're a police officer or firefighter. Now, multiply by the number of years worked.
For 30-year employees - 25 years for public safety officers - that system pays 50-60 percent of your top average salary, for life.
ORS Chapter 238 contains more than 63,000 words about PERS, so pardon me if I've oversimplified. But that's the basic plan.
Unbelievably, the Legislature left in place an alternative system that was generally irrelevant before the soaring stock market of the 1990s. That system, manipulated by a reckless and negligent PERS board, is based on individual employee accounts.
Those accounts grew exponentially when huge stock market gains were applied to them instead of to reserve accounts. The minimum annual return is 8 percent, even when PERS loses money. Upon retirement, the account total is doubled, with that number used to figure a monthly pension payment.
The recent result for many career public employees is a pension higher than 100 percent of top average salary. And now that stock market losses have decimated the PERS fund, it is more than $15 billion short of what it needs to pay off the system's largesse.
What's needed is immediate termination of the alternative benefit system. It was created by the Legislature, and it can be taken away. Individual accounts should be adjusted to correct the grossly negligent actions by the PERS board; the 8 percent guarantee and "money match" should end. That leaves the basic plan, still extremely generous by any standard. Then, legislators should decide whether to overhaul that plan, or scrap it in favor of a simplified pension program similar to most private sector plans.
Ted Kulongoski didn't buy into a picnic when he got himself elected governor. State and local service programs are poised for cutbacks and shutdowns in 2003 due to the statewide financial crisis, but Oregonians aren't likely to approve tax increases without seeing a solution to the biggest crisis of them all: PERS.
So now, you're an expert. Pass it on.
Jeb Bladine is editor and publisher of the News-Register.